Taliban man confirms peace process with Pak

Islamabad: Conflicting accounts emerged today of a possible nascent peace process between Pakistani authorities and the Taliban, with a militant spokesman confirming preliminary peace talks while denying the announcement of a ceasefire.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Hakimullah Mahsud, confirmed that "initial peace talks" had been held with the government but strongly denied that any ceasefire was in place in the tribal areas or in settled districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Ehsan and several unnamed senior Taliban commanders told The News daily they were surprised at media reports of a ceasefire with the government.

They said the Taliban leadership in South Waziristan Agency suspected "some people" wanted to create a misunderstanding among militant factions through "baseless" media reports and weaken their positions. A close aide to Mehsud told the daily, "Even (on Monday), our fighters in Orakzai Agency attacked military positions and killed a number of soldiers, including officers, and destroyed their vehicles. "If we have announced a ceasefire, then why are our people still fighting the Pakistani security forces in Orakzai and elsewhere in the tribal areas and districts?"

However, an unnamed Taliban commander told the Dawn newspaper his group had declared a ceasefire in Mehsud-dominated areas of South Waziristan to build confidence with the government for holding peace talks. The declaration of a ceasefire was a confidence building measure, the unnamed Taliban commander claimed. Adding to the confusion, Western media reports had said the truce was valid across Pakistan.

The Pakistani military`s public relations wing on Monday denied reports about talks with the Taliban. It said the army was not holding any negotiations with the Taliban or affiliated militant groups. The military said any contemplated negotiations would have to be handled by the government.

Security officials in Peshawar played down Taliban claims about peace talks and described them to the Dawn as mere "feelers". Though the situation in Mehsud-inhabited areas, the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, has been comparatively peaceful over the past two months, there were three attacks on security forces in the region since October 1. Five soldiers were killed and eight wounded in these attacks.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Tuesday welcomed the Taliban`s reported offer of a ceasefire offer but said any peace talks would be held only after the militants surrendered their arms. He said the government had made an offer of talks to the Taliban but there had not been any progress so far.

The close aide to TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud who spoke to The News said the government had made some offers for talks through tribal elders and clerics and the Taliban leaders had accepted after mutual consultations. A group of Taliban had been nominated for negotiations, he said adding "One should not expect any immediate breakthrough from these talks which are in the initial and difficult stage."

The Dawn quoted an unnamed close aide to TTP chief Mehsud as saying that the Taliban had ceased all combat activities in October and had not been attacking security forces in Mehsud-dominated areas of South Waziristan "following talks with the government". "Now it depends on the government?s attitude. If security forces reciprocate the Taliban will not carry out attacks," the aide said.

Another militant commander in Orakzai Agency too confirmed the peace talks to The News and said Maulana Waliur Rahman, a deputy to Hakimullah Mehsud, had been nominated by the Taliban for the peace talks.

He claimed three rounds of talks had been held in which the two sides highlighted their demands like halting of military operations in tribal areas, release of all militants from jail, including foreign fighters, withdrawal of security forces from the tribal belt among others.

The Taliban delegation also demanded that the government should not launch military operations against them in future at the behest of the US. The Taliban leader said the talks had not yet achieved any tangible results though he was optimistic about the future.