ISLAMABAD (AP) — The next round of direct peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban will take place in the coming days, the country's interior minister said Sunday, denying reports that the negotiations were deadlocked.
"The next meeting, which is due to take place over the next few days, will come up with a comprehensive agenda from both sides," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told journalists at a news conference.
The Pakistani government elected last May has been pursuing negotiations instead of military operations as a way to deal with the militant violence that has plagued the country for years and killed thousands. They have held one round of direct talks so far.
The minister denied reports the country's powerful military is against the talks, saying that most of the prisoners the government has ordered released to facilitate the negotiations were being held in military internment centers.
"How is it possible that we release these prisoners without the army's consent?" he asked.
The government is releasing roughly 30 prisoners requested by the Taliban, the minister said, and now it's up to the Taliban to respond. He denied that those released were combatants or commanders, but offered no description of who they were, why they were arrested or how long they had been in military custody.
The government has requested that the Pakistani Taliban release prisoners they are believed to be holding, he said, specifically mentioning the sons of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and of assassinated politician Salman Taseer, as well as the vice chancellor of the University of Peshawar.
The Pakistani Taliban is loosely aligned with the Taliban fighting in neighboring Afghanistan but has a separate leadership structure and has focused its efforts on overthrowing the Pakistani government.
Critics question whether it's possible to negotiate a deal with a militant group that has advocated overthrowing the government and say the militants have generally used previous negotiations as a way to regroup. They also point out that the Tehrik-e-Taliban, as the Pakistani Taliban is formally called, is made up of numerous factions and getting them all to agree to a peace deal could be difficult.
Khan said there are either 37 or 38 factions within the Pakistani Taliban, and additional militant groups that fall outside the umbrella organization.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Army helicopters killed seven militants in a tribal region about 45 kilometers (30 miles) south of the city of Peshawar, security and tribal officials said.
Among the dead is believed to be a local militant commander responsible for frequent attacks against security officials in the Peshawar area, including the beheading of at least four security personnel, officials said. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Militants based in the country's tribal areas often attack police in Peshawar and the surrounding areas, then sneak back to the tribal areas where police are not authorized to pursue them.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.