Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif scotches speculation of Taleban offensive

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday dismissed speculation he would launch an offensive against the Taleban following a wave of bloody attacks, saying peace talks deserved another chance.

Mr Sharif also called on militants to observe a ceasefire and named a committee that includes two leading journalists to assist in dialogue efforts.

The government has come under fire for failing to set a strategy to respond to a surge in militant violence which has seen 114 deaths in attacks since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.

Mr Sharif was elected last year vowing to end a homegrown Taleban insurgency that has raged since 2007, by engaging militants in meaningful dialogue.

In a highly-anticipated address to parliament Wednesday, Mr Sharif paid an emotional tribute to the victims of terrorism, saying: "Common citizens are being targeted and our innocent children are dying. The society is surrounded by fear."

"The acts of terrorism have to be stopped forthwith, because terrorism and talks cannot go side by side," he said.

He also slammed the Taleban for rejecting the government's first offer of talks and distorting the teachings of Islam, adding: "Our very existence is endangered. We cannot allow the nation and the country to be hostage to militants." He continued: "I know that today if the state wants to eliminate terrorists by force, the entire nation will stand by it. However, when the offer of talks has come to the fore from the other side, we ... want to give the peaceful solution another chance."

To assist dialogue efforts, Mr Sharif said he would form a four-man committee with expertise in matters related to militancy.

Taleban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP its central Shura, or consultative council, was meeting to consider the new development.

"We are ready for meaningful negotiations provided the government shows sincerity of purpose," the spokesman added.

But many observers doubt the initiative will have an impact given the demands of the Taleban, which include a release of their prisoners, the Pakistan army's withdrawal from the restive tribal areas and an end to US drone strikes.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading journalist named in the committee, told AFP: "Our role will be of facilitators and we will pave the way for negotiations between the government and the Taleban."

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