PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban withdrew their offer of peace talks Thursday, following the death of the group's deputy leader in an American drone attack, a spokesman for the group said, a blow to the incoming government of Nawaz Sharif that was elected partly on promises to restore security after years of deadly attacks.
The death of Waliur Rehman, wanted by the U.S. for a 2009 attack in Afghanistan that killed seven people working for the CIA, also focuses attention on the controversial U.S. drone program. Despite President Barack Obama's sweeping promise last week of new transparency, Wednesday's strike against a longtime American target shows that the CIA will still launch attacks on militants without having to explain them publicly.
The announcement by the Pakistani Taliban came amid conflicting reports about whether the Islamic militant movement had selected a replacement for Rehman, who was killed Wednesday in an attack that Pakistani officials said left at least four other militants dead.
Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said the group is discussing whether Khan Sayed, Rehman's deputy, will succeed him as head of the militant group's most powerful branch in South Waziristan, which would effectively make him the second-in-command.
Two Taliban commanders said commanders voted in favor of Sayed at a meeting, but Ahsan said a vote had yet to be taken. The commanders both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Sayed is believed to be about 40 years old and is known mainly for coordinating attacks in Afghanistan, say intelligence and militant sources. He was responsible for organizing an assault on a prison in northwestern Pakistan in April 2012 in which close to 400 prisoners, including 20 who were considered dangerous insurgents, were freed.
Ahsan also told The Associated Press in a telephone call from an undisclosed location that the militants withdrew an offer to join peace talks because they believe the Pakistani government approves of the U.S. drone strikes, despite official statements to the contrary. He also formally confirmed that Rehman had been killed.
"We had made the offer for peace talks with the government with good intention but we think that these drone attacks are carried out with the approval of the government so we announce the end of the talks process," he said.
Three of the others killed were mid-level Pakistani aides to Rehman, two Pakistani intelligence officials said, also speaking on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to release the information. They said they are still trying to confirm the nationality and identity of the fifth militant.
The Pakistani Taliban, formed in late 2007, aims to overthrow the Pakistani government, which it believes is too closely aligned with the United States. The militant group, formally called the Tehrik-e-Taliban or the TTP, has been responsible for hundreds of shootings and bombings across Pakistan that have resulted in thousands of deaths.
Earlier this year the group had indicated it was open to the idea of peace talks to end years of fighting if certain individuals, including Sharif, were involved.
The talks did not go anywhere at the time but the May 11 election victory of Sharif's party once again brought the issue to the forefront.
Days after the election Sharif, who is set to become prime minister for a third time, called for peace talks with the Taliban militants. Sharif said Taliban offers to talk should be taken seriously.
A spokesman for Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, promised to continue to push for talks when they take office despite the Pakistani Taliban's announcement.
"There must be a formal contact between the TTP and our government when we come into power," said Sadiqul Farooq.
The new lawmakers are scheduled to be sworn into office on Saturday, and Sharif likely to take over as prime minister next week, then name his new Cabinet.
There may still be space for peace talks in the future if back channels through tribal elders and others remain open, said Mohammed Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
"This announcement by the TTP, they are showing their anger over the drone strikes because their high-profile leader was killed," he said.
If the group does return to the negotiating table, it would be out of necessity, said Rana. The group, which has been hurt by multiple Pakistani military operations in the tribal regions in recent years, may be looking for some breathing room.
In the past, the militant organization has used such negotiations as a time to regroup, and many critics say that they have no real interest in truly negotiating with the Pakistani government.
Santana reported from Islamabad. Associated Press reporters Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.