By MUNIR AHMED, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Peace talks between representatives of the government and Pakistani Taliban militants began in the capital Thursday after a short delay, the first test for the government's controversial initiative of seeking a peaceful resolution to the country's bloody insurgency, officials said.
The talks were to be originally held Tuesday, but postponed after the government negotiators sought "clarification" about the identities of the Taliban's negotiating team. The request angered prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Samiul Haq, the leader of the Taliban team, who accused Islamabad of not taking the peace offer from the group seriously.
But the dispute was resolved, and state-run Pakistan Television showed negotiators from the two sides exchanging smiles at the meeting.
It said government team leader Irfan Sadiqui told Taliban delegate Haq that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to see an end to terrorism. In return, Haq assured his full support for the success of the peace process, it said.
Sharif announced last month that his government wanted to pursue negotiations and named a four-member team led by Sadiqui, a journalist and prime ministerial adviser. It also contains another journalist, a former spymaster and an ex-diplomat.
However, a spate of recent attacks has put pressure on Sharif to start a military operation against the Taliban in their support base in the country's northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Critics say several such peace initiatives in the past have failed and only emboldened the militants.
The Pakistani Taliban has been fighting to topple the government and enforce their harsher brand of Islam across the country, killing thousands of civilians, soldiers, policemen and government officials. Haq at a rally in Islamabad Wednesday disavowed some recent attacks, claiming a trio of "enemy forces" — meaning the U.S., Israel and Pakistan's archrival India — is trying to disrupt the peace process.
The Taliban negotiators are not from the group, although Taliban spokesmen claim they have the militants' full confidence.
In addition to cleric Haq, they include Maulana Abdul Aziz, a cleric at the famed Red Mosque in Islamabad where government forces killed scores of militants in a 2007 military operation. The third member on the Taliban committee is Mohammed Ibrahim, the head of the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami party in the northwest.
Initially, Pakistani Taliban also wanted ex-cricketer Imran Khan to represent them in talks with the government. Khan welcomed the peace process, but turned down the request, saying the Taliban should hold direct talks with Pakistan.
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