Senior commanders in the Pakistani Taliban on Monday claimed to be holding initial peace talks with the government that could end a wave of bombings that has killed thousands of people.
Reports of the contacts emerged on the same day that 16 Pakistani troops were killed in two separate attacks — 14 in an ambush blamed on separatist Baluch rebels in the southwest, and two in an attack blamed on the Taliban.
Previous peace deals between Pakistan and Islamist militants have rapidly unravelled, and were criticised by the United States and at home for allowing militants space to regroup before launching new waves of attacks.
It is also unclear whether the Taliban are united enough to cement a lasting agreement across disparate parts of the northwest where they hold sway, and whether any deal would allow militants more room to operate in Afghanistan.
“Peace talks are continuing with the Pakistani government and army. We have had two rounds of such talks,” one senior Taliban commander told AFP by telephone, claiming to be on a 10-member negotiating committee.
He said Taliban conditions included troops withdrawing to barracks, the military compensating losses and an exchange of prisoners.
It was unclear whether the talks were connected with a Swiss couple, who were abducted on July 1 and whom the Pakistani Taliban claim to be holding.
No one from the Pakistani military or government was available to comment on the purported peace talks.
But as reports emerged, the paramilitary Frontier Corps said two officers were killed Monday in a two-pronged Taliban attack on their convoy in the tribal district of Orakzai, sparking clashes killing up to 17 insurgents.
“They used mortar shells and other weapons. One captain and one lieutenant were killed, and eight others were injured,” a military spokesman told AFP.
“Troops retaliated. Helicopters escorting the convoy also shelled the militants. Seventeen militants were killed,” he added.
Significantly, there has been no major Islamist militant attack in Pakistan since a suicide bomber killed 46 people, targeting an anti-Taliban militia at a funeral in the northwestern district of Lower Dir on September 15.
On September 29, political and military leaders called for a new “focus on peace and reconciliation” at a conference organised by the government.
Suicide, bomb and gun attacks blamed on Taliban and Al-Qaeda-affiliates have killed more than 4,700 people since July 2007, according to an AFP tally.
Reports of the peace talks come as the United States seeks Pakistani help in facilitating a peace process in neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been leading an increasingly deadly 10-year insurgency.
A second Pakistani Taliban commander confirmed initial contacts with the government, saying that Taliban across the tribal belt had given their consent.
“Peace negotiations have been going on several weeks. Our first condition was to stop military offensives in the tribal areas,” the commander said.
But the main spokesman for Pakistan’s umbrella Taliban faction, Tehreek-e-Taliban, denied any peace talks.
“At the moment, the chapter of peace talks with the government is completely closed,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
A regular visitor to North Waziristan, a premier Taliban hub, said the militia always denies negotiations with the authorities but that “these days, they are re-evaluating their strategy, and considering to halt attacks”.
Pakistani troops have been fighting against homegrown Taliban in much of the semi-autonomous tribal belt which snakes along the northwest border with Afghanistan.
But the country has refused American pressure to open a new front against Afghan Taliban, in particular the Haqqani network, in North Waziristan.
The first Taliban commander told AFP that the talks concern South Waziristan and if successful, they will expand to other tribal districts.
The commander said that former military officials from the tribal areas were acting as mediators in the talks.
Two mid-level intelligence officials in the northwest were ignorant of any peace talks, but said they could be taking place at a “very high level”.
“It has always been like that with the Taliban: waves of attacks, then quiet times,” said Saifullah Khan Mehsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre.
“These days, government agencies are trying hard to divert them from putting bombs in Pakistan,” he added.