ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s planned peace talks with Taliban insurgents stumbled as they began on 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 (TTP) 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 towards peace talks last year came to an abrupt halt in November when the TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike.
Teams representing the Taliban and government had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2 p.m. (9 a.m. in Manila) to chart a “roadmap” 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,” said Yusufzai.
“We also seek explanations on other issues, like how powerful this committee is.”
The head of the Taliban team, hardline 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,” said Haq.
“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, told Agence France-Presse 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 (US) saying on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) it was keeping a close eye on developments.