Pakistan to form group to talk directly with Taleban

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan on Thursday announced it was setting up a state 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.

The military retaliated with a series of air strikes that it said killed more than 100 militants, and the Taleban last weekend announced a month-long ceasefire.

But negotiations have so far been conducted through teams of go-betweens, which some observers say has hampered their effectiveness.

Thursday's announcement came hours after mediators representing the Pakistani government and Taleban insurgents called for higher-level talks between the two sides following a breakfast meeting hosted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"It has been decided to accelerate the peace process, thus a negotiating committee (will) be formed which would be an official committee," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told lawmakers in the National Assembly in capital Islamabad.

"The committee would have representatives from federal government and the provincial Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government," Khan said, adding the government wanted to start direct talks with the Taleban within the next week.

"The prime minister will take parliamentary leaders into confidence after the start of direct talks," Khan added, saying existing avenues of communication would remain functional for liaison purposes.

Earlier in the day, the government's chief negotiator, Irfan Siddiqui, said the initial phase of peace talks had been completed and he had proposed direct talks with the Taleban.

"We have asked the prime minister to replace this committee with an effective forum," he said after Thursday's meeting with Sharif.

"We believe that in the next phase, sensitive issues and demands will come up and we need to have a mechanism for direct contacts." Rahimullah Yusufzai, another government negotiator, told AFP: "We have proposed that those who have authority to make decisions should be part of this committee. There should be representatives from the government and the military in the committee." On the Taleban side, chief negotiator Maulana Sami-ul-Haq said his team was "satisfied with the round of talks this morning with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif".

"It was decided in the meeting that now the time has come to strengthen the committees and empower them more," he added.

Haq said his team might have to return to the Taleban's base in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan in a day or two to report back to their leadership.

Observers have criticised the dialogue process for being a step removed from the real decision-makers, but analyst Imtiaz Gul said face-to-face contacts risked giving respectability to a banned militant outfit.

"It is a legitimate demand to have direct TTP representation in talks.

However, if that happens and the government representatives are sitting across the table, this could amount to lending legitimacy to an organisation which the government has proscribed as a terrorist outfit," he told AFP.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) is the umbrella movement for the militants.

A statement issued by Sharif's office earlier said he was committed to peace.

"As prime minister it is my constitutional, religious, national, moral and human duty to stop the continuation of fire and blood and give peace to the country and citizens," it said.

The peace talks, which began in February, were a key campaign pledge for 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 sharia law and a withdrawal of troops from the lawless tribal zones.

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

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