ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's prime minister reiterated Monday an offer of peace talks with militants in the country's northwest who have waged a bloody campaign against the government and so far rejected any talk of negotiations.
But Nawaz Sharif also held out the option of new military operations to root out the militants operating near the northwestern border with Afghanistan.
The comments came in Sharif's first televised address to the country since taking office on June 5. The prime minister won a third term in office in part by promising to hold talks with militants to end the years of fighting that have plagued the country.
But then the militants rejected the new government's offer after an American drone attack killed the Pakistani Taliban's second-in-charge. Ever since, the government has struggled to articulate a new policy as militants have continued to carry out deadly attacks across the country.
Sharif said he wanted to "extend an invitation of dialogue to those elements which unfortunately have taken the course of extremism."
"The government has got more than one option to cope with the problem of terrorism, but wisdom requires taking such a course in which no more innocent lives are spoiled," he said. Sharif left open the option of new military operations saying that the strife could end either through negotiations or "with the use of full state power."
The hour-long speech focused mostly on how Sharif would end the country's energy crisis, in a nod to the electricity and gas shortages that are the chief concern of Pakistanis. It also touched on security, the situation in Pakistan's troubled Baluchistan province, and the new government's plans for economic revival.
At a time when relations between Pakistan and neighboring India have severely frayed over a series of attacks along the de-facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir, Sharif also emphasized his desire to improve relations with India.
But as terror attacks have continued unabated across the country — including a Taliban-orchestrated prison break in which hundreds of criminals and militants went free — the new government has come under criticism that it doesn't have a policy to improve security.
Many Pakistanis, frustrated that years of military operations in the northwest have failed to end the terror attacks once and for all, would welcome a negotiated end to the conflict. If the Sharif government launched a broad crackdown on militancy it could also trigger blowback in the ruling party's home province of Punjab, which has suffered relatively few attacks, and possibly alienate Islamists among the party's supporters.
But critics question what room there is to negotiate with militants who don't recognize the Pakistani state, have blown up schools, killed thousands of civilians and security forces and want to impose a harsh version of Islam across the country. Critics also point out that the militants have a history of using negotiations to buy time in order to regroup militarily.
With the militants so far refusing to hold talks, it's unclear exactly what the new government will do. The government has called for a conference with leading political parties to come up with a counterterrorism policy including whether to hold talks or to pursue military operations instead.
Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.
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