Imran Khan's party seek cleric help in Taleban peace talks

PESHAWAR (AFP) - Pakistani politician Imran Khan's party has sought the help of an elderly pro-Taleban cleric to initiate peace talks with the militants, party officials said Tuesday.

Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party approached Sami Ul-Haq, nicknamed the "Father of the Taleban", after emerging from elections as the largest party in the troubled northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

North-western Pakistan is on the frontline of a nearly seven-year domestic Taleban insurgency and suffers near-daily bomb and shooting attacks blamed on militants.

Former cricket star Khan has called for an end to military operations and peace talks with the Taliban, making his party's victory in the northwest a significant development.

Mr Khan has vowed to put together a provincial coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and turn it into a "role model" for the rest of the country.

"We will talk to all stakeholders for establishment of peace in our province, meeting with Maulana Sami Ul-Haq was a part of that," Mr Shaukat Yousafzai, a party leader who won a seat for the party in the provincial assembly told AFP.

Mr Sami Ul-Haq is chief of his own faction of the religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S) party and runs a madrassa that educated several Taleban leaders.

Mr Yousafzai said a PTI delegation led by Pervez Khattak, the incoming provincial chief minister, met Mr Sami Ul-Haq late Monday.

Mr Hamid Ul-Haq, the cleric's son and a former MP, confirmed to AFP that PTI leaders came to seek support.

"They asked Sami Ul-Haq to play his role in establishment of peace in the province," Mr Haq said. "Sami Ul-Haq told the delegation that he will play his role in establishment of peace and initiation of peace talks."

Pakistan's incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday said he was open to talks with the Taleban, saying bringing peace was one of his top priorities.

Pakistan's umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) movement in February signalled its willingness to enter peace talks with the government but also stepped up attacks against Mr Sharif's rival Pakistan People's Party and its main allies, drastically curtailing their ability to campaign during the election.

Previous Pakistani governments, as well as the military, have forged ad hoc peace deals with insurgent factions in various parts of the northwestern tribal belt, which have often broken down quickly.

The Taleban, who denounce democracy as un-Islamic, killed more than 150 people during the election campaign, including 24 on polling day itself.

Taleban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan had said the insurgents would "wait until political parties form their government" but told AFP before the polls that anyone who "comes into conflict with Islam" would be targeted.

Suicide, bomb and gun attacks blamed on Taleban and Al-Qaeda-affiliates have killed nearly 6,000 people since July 2007, according to an AFP tally.

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