Pakistan ready for military operation if talks with Taleban fail

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's defence minister said on Friday the government was committed to bringing peace through dialogue with the Taleban but warned a military operation could be launched if talks failed.

The government announced on Thursday it was setting up a new committee to hold direct talks with the Taleban in a bid to accelerate the peace process.

Dialogue aimed at ending the Islamists' seven-year insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives, resumed on Wednesday following a two-week suspension after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.

Continued militant violence, including a gun and suicide attack on an Islamabad court complex that killed 11 on Monday, has threatened to derail the process.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) denied that attack, insisting the ceasefire it announced last weekend still held, and defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said dialogue remained the government's preferred option.

"Talks are top priority even today to bring peace in the country," he said on Geo television news channel.

"But if there is no advancement in talks and they fail to fulfil the objective, we can go for a military operation."

The peace talks, which began in February, were a key campaign pledge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year.

But many analysts are sceptical about their chances for success, given the Taleban's demands for nationwide syaria law and a withdrawal of troops from the lawless tribal zones.

More than 110 people have been killed in militant violence since Mr Sharif named a team for talks in late January.

The announcement came at a time when many had been expecting a full military offensive in North Waziristan, the tribal area that is a stronghold for militants.

The US has long pushed Pakistan to do more to eradicate militant sanctuaries in its seven tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.

Mr Asif warned that the government would launch a military operation if there was no let up in the violence.

"We want to give space to the dialogue process. Our aim is peace and not the bloodshed," he said.

"But there is violation (of ceasefire) from the other side. If they prolong the talks and the (militant) activities continue alongside, we will have no other option."

Many regional deals between the military and the Taleban have failed in the past.

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