ISLAMABAD (AFP) ― Pakistan’s planned peace talks with Taliban insurgents stumbled as they began Tuesday, with government negotiators missing a preliminary meeting citing doubts over the militants’ team.
The faltering start will fuel skepticism about whether negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan can achieve a meaningful and lasting accord.
It came as the country’s fragile security situation was underscored by a fresh outbreak of sectarian violence in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
A suicide bomb attack on a Shiite Muslim neighborhood killed eight and wounded 42, officials said, just hours after a leading Shiite cleric was shot dead.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif caused surprise last week by announcing a team to begin dialogue with the TTP, which has been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.
Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year.
More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.
Tentative efforts toward peace talks last year came to an abrupt halt in November when the TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Teams representing the Taliban and government had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2 p.m. to chart a “road map” for talks.
But the government delegation did not show up. One of its members, senior journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, said it wanted to clarify who was on the Taliban team and what powers they had.
The TTP initially named five negotiators but cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan declined to take part and another was pulled out by his political party.
“We told them we are ready to meet them after we get an explanation about one issue, that their committee will consist of three members,” Yusufzai said.
“We also seek explanations on other issues, like how powerful this committee is.”
The head of the Taliban team, hard-line cleric Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, accused the government of not taking the talks seriously.
“Today it has been exposed how serious the government is about talks,” Haq said.
“They are making a joke of talks and joking with the nation. On one side they are saying they are talking to the Taliban and on the other side they are making joke of these talks.”
The TTP’s main spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said that Haq and his two colleagues had their blessing.
“The three-member committee is final now and we have our full confidence in it to hold talks,” he said.
The talks will be keenly watched in the West, with the United States saying Tuesday it was keeping a close eye on developments.
“We of course are closely following the recent developments and reports.
The issue of whether to negotiate with TTP is an internal matter for Pakistan,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“More broadly, the United States and Pakistan continue to have a vital shared strategic interest in ending extremist violence so as to build a more prosperous, stable and peaceful region.”
Stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as important to neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S.-led NATO troops are pulling out after more than a decade of war.
Washington has long pressured Pakistan to take action against militants using the tribal areas as a base to attack NATO forces across the border.
Talk of a full offensive in North Waziristan gathered momentum last month when the air force bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts following two major attacks on military targets.
But no operation was launched and critics accused Sharif’s government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence.
The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country‘s constitution must remain paramount.
Tuesday’s suicide bomb blast in Peshawar highlighted the precarious security situation that threatens to jeopardize the talks, officials said.
“Today’s blast proved that there is a third force working to sabotage the peace talks,” Shaukat Yousufzai, provincial health minister for Khyber Pakhtonkhwa province said.
“There is a hidden enemy who wants more bloodshed in the country but the government and the Taliban should be very careful now and should not let such nefarious designs succeed.”
The Pakistani Taliban rejected responsibility for the Peshawar bomb, with a spokesman saying it had “no role.”
The government team for the talks consists of senior journalists Irfan Siddiqui and Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Haq said his team was ready to move on from Tuesday’s abortive start and urged the government to come to the negotiating table.
“We once again invite the government committee to come and talk to us. We will not make anything a point of prestige,” he told reporters.