DERA ISLAMIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban wants five well-known political and religious figures including ex-cricketer Imran Khan to represent them in peace talks with the government, according to a statement from the militant group Sunday.
Khan's party said he was unlikely to accept the role. But the Taliban statement is one of their clearest signs to date welcoming the negotiations proposed by Pakistan's prime minister.
"The Taliban want to negotiate with the government with full sincerity and seriousness," the group said in an emailed statement. It said the group "evolved a consensus on setting up such a team that could contact the government's team easily, and that could relay the Taliban's view to the government and Muslims of Pakistan effectively."
Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf party runs the government in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the Taliban's tribal strongholds, said in a statement that the Taliban should select is own members as representatives. However, he said his party will discuss how it "can be of further assistance to further the dialogue."
Khan is strongly pro-negotiations and has led a campaign against U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in the northwest.
The Taliban has been fighting to topple the government and enforce their hard-line brand of Islam across the country, killing thousands of civilians, soldiers, police and government officials.
The other four prospective negotiators, three members of right-leaning parties and a hard-line cleric, indicated in recent days that they might speak for the militant group after media reports that the Taliban had been considering them.
One, Maulana Abdul Aziz, is a cleric at the famed Red Mosque in the capital Islamabad where government forces killed scores of militants in a 2007 military operation.
"It is a noble cause," he told local Dunya TV. "We want enforcement of Shariah in this country."
One of the politicians, Maulana Samiul Haq, is the head of a large hard-line seminary in the northwest where Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and several of his top commanders are said to have studied. He agreed to be part of the Taliban team and urged upon Khan not to refuse the offer. He said Khan had been supporting negotiations for many years. "He shouldn't drag his feet now," he told local Geo News TV.
Haq said the Taliban would come up with another team of eight or nine members from their group.
The militant group's statement was a response to the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's recent announcement in parliament that his government would like to stick to its policy of a settlement through negotiations. Sharif's statement came despite a wave of Taliban attacks that killed over 100 in January. Saying he wants to give yet another chance to peace, Sharif had set up a four-man team to start peace talks with the militants.
Critics say several such peace initiatives in the past failed and only emboldened the militants.