Pakistan holds landmark talks with Taleban

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Negotiators for Pakistan's government and the Taleban called for a ceasefire after meeting Thursday in the first round of talks aimed at ending the militants' bloody seven-year insurgency.

The two sides gathered in Islamabad for a preliminary meeting that lasted more than three hours to chart a "roadmap" for future discussions, amid deep scepticism over whether dialogue can yield a lasting peace deal.

Reading from a joint statement following the talks, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the Taleban's chief negotiator, said his side agreed with a government demand that "there should be no activity by either side which can potentially harm the peace efforts".

Irfan Siddiqui, his government counterpart, hailed the meeting - the first ever formal dialogue between the two sides - saying that the Taleban committee had "responded to us beyond our expectations".

The breakthrough came after an abortive start to the talks Tuesday, which were called off when the government cited doubts over the Taleban negotiating team. "We are really happy that the Taleban committee has responded to us beyond our expectations and they have heard our reservations and told us their reservations with an open heart," Mr Siddiqui told reporters on Thursday evening.

"We share the common goal of making this country peaceful in accordance with Islamic teaching. And I thank the Taleban committee for meeting us," Mr Siddiqui added.

Mr Haq said his team would hold discussions with the Taleban leadership and a second round of talks would be held after they had responded.

Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed eight people in a sectarian attack against minority Shiite Muslims in the northwestern city of Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to the talks.

The main TTP spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar told AFP his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced. The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) has killed thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks across the nuclear-armed state since it launched its campaign in 2007.

The start of the year has seen a surge in militant violence with more than 110 people killed, and an air force bombardment of TTP hideouts in North Waziristan fuelled speculation that a major military offensive was imminent. There is talk of splits within the TTP, a fractious coalition of militant groups, with some rumoured to oppose the whole idea of negotiations.

Mr Saifullah Khan Mehsud, director of the FATA Research Centre, said this made it difficult to achieve even a ceasefire as a first step. "I don't know if the Taleban are on the same page and which groups that these negotiators are representing, so I don't know if they can guarantee a ceasefire at all," he told AFP.