Venue set for Pakistan, Taleban direct talks

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's negotiators have agreed on a location to hold direct peace talks with the Taleban, the head of the militant group's negotiation committee said on Saturday.

"The process of talking directly to the Taleban will start in two to three days, both sides have agreed on the venue," Sami Ul Haq, a negotiator for the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), told reporters, following a meeting also attended by the country's interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

"Both sides are showing flexibility and a willingness for success of the talks," Haq added, saying the chosen place would be declared a "peace zone" but without specifying its location.

In an effort to take the talks to a higher level, the government last week formed a new four-member committee to begin direct contact with the Taleban.

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

Saturday's agreement came despite Taleban accusations earlier in the day that security forces had fired mortal shells and conducted raids on hideouts in tribal regions of the country.

In a statement issued to the media, TTP spokesman Shahid Ullah Shahid alleged that security forces were torturing Taleban prisoners.

"These incidents are meant to force us towards war," Shahid said.

The government opened negotiations with the TTP last month in a bid to end their bloody seven-year insurgency.

The process broke down for more than two weeks after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers, but later resumed after the Taleban announced a month-long ceasefire.

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

But 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.

Moreover, attacks claimed by splinter factions have continued during talks and despite the Taleban ceasefire.

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