Pakistan: Militants at odds after government's offer of peace talks

The Pakistani government's offer to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban has caused a rift in the organization's leadership. The leader of a side-group reportedly welcomed the offer, infuriating the main Taliban organization.

Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP
Asmatullah Muawiya, head of the Taliban’s faction of fighters from central Punjab province, listens to reporters at an undisclosed place in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan Aug. 15. A senior Pakistani Taliban commander welcomed the government’s recent offer to hold peace talks Thursday, causing a rift amongst the group's leadership.

A peace talk offer from Pakistan's government has created a rift among militants as the country's main Taliban organization ousted the head of a side-group for welcoming the offer while the leader refused to accept the main group's decision.

The spokesman for the main Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan group, or TTP, said in a statement that its executive council has removed Ismatullah Muawiya from the leadership of Punjabi Taliban militants.

Shahidullah Shahid said Muawiya was not authorized to respond to the government's offer and said the group's leadership will later issue their stance on talks. He said the leadership would also later name a new leader for the group in central Punjab province.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who took office in June, campaigned on a platform that included starting peace talks with the Taliban as the best way to end the group's bloody insurgency, which has resulted in thousands of deaths in recent years. In his first national speech, Sharif reiterated his desire for peace through dialogue but said talks would be held only with those who lay down their arms. Sharif also said the government would leave open the possibility of using force.

"A decision about talks with the government should be taken after reviewing their position," Shahid said, adding that the group didn't appreciate the government's "threats."

Muawiya, however, defied the main group's decision, telling The Associated Press that the executive council couldn't remove him because the Punjabi Taliban is a separate group. He said his group has its own decision-making body to decide leadership and other matters.

Muawiya was the first person to suggest late last year that the Pakistani Taliban were open to holding peace talks. He sent a letter to a local newspaper outlining conditions for a cease-fire, including the imposition of Islamic law and an end to the government's unpopular alliance with the U.S.

Just recently Muawiya praised the government's decision to temporarily halt all state executions, just days ahead of the planned hangings of several al-Qaida-linked militants. He had threatened last week that the Taliban would target the leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N if the militants were hanged.

Muawiya also praised Sharif for demonstrating "political maturity" by reiterating his offer to hold peace talks in the nationwide speech.

"If the present government takes an interest in solving matters seriously and with prudence, then there is no reason why jihadi forces active in Pakistan shouldn't respond to it positively," Muawiya said in a statement sent to journalists early this week.

The idea of holding government peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart. Pakistanis have criticized the agreements for allowing militants to rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could include provisions that threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.

Even if the two sides sit down to talk, it's unclear whether they will be able to find common ground given the Taliban's demands that Islamic law be implemented and Islamabad break its alliance with Washington.

Since 2009, the Pakistani military has waged an aggressive campaign against the Taliban in their northwest sanctuaries along the Afghan border, but the militants have proved resilient. They have carried out a series of high-profile attacks since Sharif took office, including a prison break at the end of July freeing more than three dozen suspected militants.

Talk of a peace deal could be troubling to the U.S. if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in Afghanistan. However, Washington's push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could also make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban also trained the Pakistani-American who failed to carry out an attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.

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