A Pakistani Taliban spokesman denied Sunday an earlier announcement by the militant group's deputy chief that it was holding peace talks with the government.
The conflicting claims are a clear sign of splits within the movement, which could make it harder for Islamabad to strike a deal to end the violent insurgency gripping the country. At the same time, the cracks could make it easier to suppress the insurgency militarily.
The Pakistani government, meanwhile, said the U.S. vacated an air base that had been used by American drones. Islamabad had ordered the Americans out in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes last month that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
Pakistan's conflict with its branch of the Taliban is closely linked to the American-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. Past informal cease-fires have made it easier for Afghan militants sheltered by their Pakistani counterparts to attack U.S. forces across the border _ making potential peace talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban a possible cause of concern in Washington.
From Islamabad's perspective, rising anger against the U.S. increases the incentive to cut a deal with the Pakistani Taliban, as many blame the conflict on their government's alliance with Washington.
However, the government's ability to negotiate with the clandestine militant movement will be made vastly more complicated by the Taliban's murky command structure, and the difficulty in telling whether commanders who say they are willing to make peace actually have any authority on the ground.
Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, who has been recognized by both militants and officials as the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, said Saturday that the group was in negotiations with the government. Mohammed, the first named commander to confirm talks, said an agreement to end the country's brutal four-year insurgency was within striking distance.
Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan denied Mohammed's claims, saying there would be no negotiations until the government imposed Islamic law, or Shariah, in the country. The group says it wants to install a hardline Islamist regime.
Ehsan has on several occasions over the past six months dismissed reports of peace talks by unnamed militant commanders and intelligence officials.
"Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be deemed as the Taliban talking," Ehsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The group, which is closely allied with al-Qaida, has been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last 4 1/2 years. At least 35,000 people have been killed in suicide bombings, other insurgent attacks and army offensives.
But military operations and U.S. drone strikes have weakened the Pakistani Taliban, which has splintered into more than 100 smaller factions, according to security officials, analysts and tribesmen from the insurgent heartland.
Taliban deputy commander Mohammed's main area of strength has been the Bajur tribal area along the Afghan border, but he reportedly fled to Afghanistan in recent years to escape army operations. He has long been identified as head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur and said a deal with the government there could be a "role model" for the rest of the border region.
But another commander, Mullah Dadullah, also now claims to be Taliban chief in Bajur. Dadullah contacted the AP on Sunday and denied the group, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, was negotiating with the government.
"As TTP chief responsible for Bajur, I am categorically saying there are no talks going on between the government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban at the Bajur level or the central level," Dadullah said, also speaking from an undisclosed location.
Ehsan, the spokesman, said Dadullah rather than Mohammed was the head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur.
Despite the Taliban's record of indiscriminate violence, much of it directed at civilians, there is political and public support for peace talks. In September, the weak civilian government announced it was prepared to "give peace a chance" with militants, pandering to right-wing Islamist parties and their supporters.
Government-militant talks could strain the already troubled relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.
Ties suffered a severe blow when NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two army posts along the Afghan border on Nov. 26. Pakistan retaliated in several ways, including by giving the U.S. until Dec. 11 to vacate the Shamsi Air Base used by American drones in southwestern Baluchistan province.
The Pakistani military said the last flight carrying U.S. personnel and equipment left Shamsi on Sunday, and the base was taken over by the army.
The American ambassador had said previously the U.S. would do everything it could to vacate the base by the deadline. A U.S. Embassy representative could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Vacating Shamsi is not expected to significantly curtail drone attacks in Pakistan. The U.S. military used it to service drones which took off from Afghanistan heading to the border region, and then could not make it back to base because of mechanical or weather difficulties.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta and Matiullah Achakzai in Chaman, Pakistan, contributed to this report.