ISLAMABAD (AP) — Peace talks between the Pakistani government and representatives of the Taliban began on Thursday after a short delay, the first test for the government's controversial initiative of seeking a peaceful resolution to the country's bloody insurgency, officials said.
The talks were originally to be held Tuesday but were postponed after the government negotiators sought "clarification" about the identities of the Taliban's negotiating team. The request angered prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Samiul Haq, the leader of the Taliban team, who accused Islamabad of not taking the peace offer from the group seriously.
But the dispute was subsequently resolved, and state-run Pakistan Television showed negotiators from the two sides exchanging smiles as Thursday's meeting got underway in the capital, Islamabad.
The TV said the head of the government team, Irfan Sadiqui, told Taliban delegate Haq that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to see an end to terrorism. In return, Haq assured his full support for the success of the peace process, the report said.
Sharif announced last month that his government wanted to pursue negotiations and named a four-member team led by Sadiqui, a journalist and an adviser to the prime minister. Also on the government was another journalist, a former spymaster and an ex-diplomat.
However, a spate of recent attacks has put pressure on Sharif to start a military operation against the Taliban in their support base in the country's northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Critics say several such peace initiatives in the past have failed and only emboldened the militants.
After four hours of talks, the two sides issues a joint statement Thursday, saying both sides had called for avoiding any steps that could disrupt the peace process.
"It is necessary for the success of the talks that all activities against peace and security should be ended," Haq told a news conference.
He said "the process of talks should not be a long one as the nation is waiting for good news. Therefore, this process should be completed in a short period."
Haq also said he had asked the government negotiators to arrange a meeting between the Taliban team and the prime minister, army chief and head of the intelligence agency so that issues could be discussed with them directly.
In return, the government team also said it wanted a direct meeting with the Taliban leadership, Haq said, which the cleric said he would pass on to the Taliban.
Sadiqui, the head of the government team, said there would be more talks.
"Today, we started the journey for peace, and both sides have agreed to complete it as soon as possible," he said.
The Pakistani Taliban have been fighting to topple the government and enforce their harsher brand of Islam across the country. They have killed thousands of civilians, soldiers, policemen and government officials in the bloody insurgency.
On Wednesday, Haq disavowed some of the recent attacks during a speech at a rally in Islamabad, blaming instead a trio of "enemy forces" — meaning the U.S., Israel and Pakistan's archrival India — and claiming the three are trying to disrupt the peace process.
The Taliban negotiators are not actually from the group itself, although Taliban spokesmen claim they have the militants' full confidence.
In addition to Haq, the Taliban negotiators include Maulana Abdul Aziz, a cleric at the famed Red Mosque in Islamabad where government forces killed scores of militants in a 2007 military operation. The third member on the Taliban team is Mohammed Ibrahim, the head of the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami party in northwestern Pakistan.
Initially, the Taliban also wanted ex-cricketer Imran Khan to represent them in talks with the government. But though he welcome the peace process, Khan turned down the request, saying the Taliban should hold direct talks with Pakistan.