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Pakistani Taliban issue demands before peace talks

Sep. 15, 2013 - 09:43AM   |  
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PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — The Pakistani Taliban demanded Sunday that the government release militant prisoners and begin withdrawing troops from the group’s tribal sanctuary before they participate in peace talks, raising doubts about prospects for negotiations.

The demands came as a roadside bomb claimed by the Taliban killed a major general and two other soldiers as they were riding in a vehicle in the country’s northwest, the military said. The general was the top army commander in an area containing the Swat Valley, where the military carried out a major offensive against the Taliban in 2009.

The Taliban’s leadership council issued the peace talk demands while meeting to discuss the government’s offer to negotiate, said the group’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid.

Pakistan’s major political parties endorsed peace talks with the Taliban last week as the best way to end a decade-long insurgency that has killed thousands. But it’s unclear what steps the government is willing to take to convince the militants to negotiate.

It’s also unclear what would be acceptable to the army, which has lost thousands of soldiers fighting the Taliban and is considered the country’s strongest institution.

“The Taliban have been deceived in the past in the name of peace, so the government will have to take some steps before the start of talks to assure the Taliban that the government is serious about the peace process,” Shahid told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The government must release Pakistani Taliban militant prisoners and show that it is withdrawing soldiers from the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan, Shahid said.

“If the government does not take these two steps, the peace process cannot go forward,” said Shahid.

Intelligence officials and militant commanders said the Taliban and the army exchanged a small number of prisoners last week, though the army denied the swap.

The army has carried out scores of operations against the Taliban in the tribal region, but the militants continue to carry out attacks.

The roadside bomb that killed Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi and two other soldiers Sunday was planted near the Afghan border in the Upper Dir district, the military said. Upper Dir and the Swat Valley are located in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The Pakistani Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack.

Also Sunday, a roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded another in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country. On Saturday night, militants ambushed a group of tribal policemen riding in a vehicle near the northwest town of Bannu, killing two of them and wounding four others.

No one has claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Many observers are skeptical about peace talks with the Taliban since prior agreements fell apart. Critics say the deals simply gave the militants time to regroup and continue their fight against the state.

It’s also unclear what room for compromise the Taliban and the government would find if they did sit down to negotiate. The militants have criticized Pakistan’s democratic system, demanded the imposition of Islamic law and stipulated the government must end its alliance with the United States.

Even if the two sides could strike a deal, it’s unclear how well the Taliban could enforce it. There are dozens of militant groups based in the tribal region with varying degrees of allegiance to the Taliban.

The U.S. is wary of a peace deal because it could give Afghan Taliban militants greater space to conduct cross-border attacks against U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. But it could be hard for the U.S. to push back against negotiations — it wants Pakistan’s help in striking a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused on different targets. The Afghan Taliban fight coalition troops in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Taliban largely battle the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani Taliban indicated they were open to holding peace talks at the end of last year but withdrew that offer in May after the group’s deputy leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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