Pakistan-Taleban peace talks falter after government no-show

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Negotiators for the Pakistani Taleban said on Tuesday that government representatives had refused to show up for planned peace talks, citing confusion over the militants' team.

The two sides had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2pm (0900 GMT, 5pm Singapore time) to chart a "roadmap" for talks, amid a surge in militant violence and scepticism about the chances of reaching a negotiated peace.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif caused surprise last week by announcing a team to begin dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), which has been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.

The head of the TTP's talks committee, hardline cleric Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, said he was disappointed the government team had failed to show up as agreed.

"I received a phone call from Irfan Siddiqui who said confusion still persisted because the composition of the Taleban committee has changed from five to three," Haq said. Mr Siddiqui is leading the government negotiators.

"Citing this reason, he said the government committee could not come."

AFP were unable to reach the government for an immediate comment.

Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan's tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year.

More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.

Washington has long pressured Pakistan to take action against militants using tribal areas as a base to attack Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Talk of a full offensive in North Waziristan rose last month when the air force bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts following two major attacks on military targets.

But no operation was launched and critics accused Mr Sharif's government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence.

Even before Tuesday's abortive start, media held out scant hope for the talks.

The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country's constitution must remain paramount.

English-language daily The Nation predicted the "peace talks balloon will burst soon enough".

"The ambiguity and confusion still exists because the political leadership has been extremely hesitant towards taking a clear stand and calling a spade a spade for a change," it said in an editorial on Tuesday.

The News predicted the process would be "long and excruciating... since neither committee contains anyone with the authority to make decisions".

The government team consists of senior journalists Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter Services Intelligence agency.

The Taleban initially named five negotiators: Haq, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who is the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Professor Ibrahim Khan of religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, Mufti Kifayatullah of the JUI-F religious party and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

But Mr Imran Khan declined the offer and Mufti Kifayatullah's party withdrew Kifayatullah on Monday, complaining they had not been properly consulted over the talks.

Hardliner Haq urged the government to come to the negotiating table.

"We once again invite the government committee to come and talk to us. We will not make anything a point of prestige," he told reporters.

"We believe that the pressure is now growing on the Prime Minister. He makes sincere offers but later comes under US pressure."

Mr Haq told AFP on Monday that the TTP had so far made no formal demands for the talks.

In the past, the militants have called for their prisoners to be released and for Pakistani troops to be pulled out of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border.