ISLAMABAD- Negotiators for Pakistan’s government and Taliban met Thursday for a first round of talks aimed at ending the militants’ bloody seven-year insurgency, sources said.
The two sides gathered in Islamabad for a preliminary meeting likely to chart a “road map” for future discussions, amid deep scepticism over whether dialogue can yield a lasting peace deal.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella grouping of numerous militant factions, has waged a campaign since 2007, killing thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks across the nuclear-armed state.
An official close to Irfan Siddiqui, the chief government negotiator, told AFP the talks had begun on Thursday afternoon.
Another official at the talks venue, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House, confirmed that they had started.
The peace initiative, which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced just as many were anticipating a major military offensive on TTP strongholds in North Waziristan tribal area, got off to a chaotic start earlier this week.
The government delegation missed the planned opening meeting on Tuesday saying they were unsure of who was representing the TTP at the talks and what powers they had been given.
Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed eight people in a sectarian attack against minority Shiite Muslims in the northwestern city of Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to the talks.
The main TTP spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar told AFP his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced.
Stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as important to neighboring Afghanistan, where US-led NATO troops are pulling out after more than a decade of war.
Washington has said it is watching the talks closely. It has long been pushing Pakistan to take action against militants using the tribal areas as a base to attack NATO forces across the border.
Observers have held out scant hopes for the talks, saying there appears to be little common ground for progress between the two sides, and warning of what the government might be forced to concede.
One of the TTP’s negotiating team, Maulana Abdul Aziz, told AFP on Wednesday there was no chance of peace unless the government agreed to the militants’ demand for Islamic sharia law to be imposed throughout Pakistan.
The government has insisted that Pakistan’s constitution must remain paramount. Given the gulf between the two sides, there has been skepticism about what the talks could achieve.
Local peace deals with the militants in the past have quickly fallen apart.
Government efforts to start peace talks last year came to an abrupt halt in November with the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike.
Sharif’s announcement last week that he wanted to give peace talks another try caught many observers by surprise.
The start of the year has seen a surge in militant violence, with more than 110 people killed, and an air force bombardment of TTP hideouts in North Waziristan fuelled speculation that a major military offensive was imminent.