Pakistani Taliban commander welcomes peace talks

Aug 22, 2013, 2:44 PM EDT

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — A senior Pakistani Taliban commander welcomed the government's recent offer to hold peace talks Thursday, raising the possibility the militant group has changed its stance after shunning negotiations earlier this year.

Asmatullah Muawiya, head of the Taliban's faction of fighters from central Punjab province, said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif "demonstrated political maturity" by reiterating his offer to hold peace talks in a speech on Monday.

"If the present government takes an interest in solving matters seriously and with prudence, then there is no reason why jihadi forces active in Pakistan shouldn't respond to it positively," Muawiya said in a statement sent to journalists.

It's not entirely certain whether the Pakistani Taliban's top leadership shares his sentiments. But they have backed previous statements made by Muawiya, saying he should be seen as having their support.

The commander was the first person to indicate at the end of last year that the Pakistani Taliban were open to holding peace talks. He sent a letter to a local newspaper outlining conditions for a cease-fire, including the imposition of Islamic law and an end to the government's unpopular alliance with the U.S.

Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud then released a video in which he said the group would consider a serious offer to talk but would not lay down their weapons as a precondition.

Prime Minister Sharif, who took office in June, campaigned on a platform that indicated peace talks with the Taliban were the best way to end the group's bloody insurgency, which has killed thousands of people in recent years.

But the Taliban withdrew their offer to negotiate at the end of May after the group's deputy commander was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Muawiya praised the government's decision Sunday to halt all state executions temporarily, just days ahead of the planned hangings of several al-Qaida-linked militants. He threatened in an interview with The Associated Press last week that the Taliban would target the leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N if the militants were hanged.

The prime minister "strengthened the wish of peace by suspending punishment for prisoners," Muawiya said.

The previous government had put in place a moratorium on executions. The current government initially indicated it would end that moratorium, but said Sunday that executions were halted until Sharif held talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

The idea of peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart. The agreements have been criticized for allowing the militants to regroup and rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.

The Pakistani military has waged an aggressive campaign against the Taliban in their northwest sanctuaries along the Afghan border since 2009, but the militants have proved resilient. They have carried out a series of high-profile attacks since Sharif took office, including a prison break at the end of July in which they freed more than three dozen suspected militants.

A roadside bomb hit a convoy of security forces in the southern city of Karachi on Thursday night, killing one person and wounding 20 others, said police official Ishtiaq Ahmed. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion likely will fall on the Taliban.

Even if the two sides sit down to talk, it's unclear whether they will be able to find common ground given the Taliban's demands that Islamic law be implemented and Islamabad break its alliance with Washington.

Muawiya said Pakistan's foreign policy should be based on the principles of Islam, not "American slavery." He also demanded that U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in the country come to an end.

Pakistani officials regularly denounce the attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but are known to have supported them secretly in the past.

It's also unclear how Sharif's concept of peace fits within the framework laid out by the Pakistani army, considered the most powerful institution in the country. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani outlined strict conditions for any peace deal with the Taliban in April, saying they must "unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law."

Talk of a peace deal could be troubling to the U.S. if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in Afghanistan. However, Washington's push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could also make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban also trained the Pakistani-American who carried out a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010.


Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad and Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.