The Pakistani Taliban has sidelined a senior commander for welcoming the government’s offer to hold peace talks, according to the group’s spokesman.
The development exposes a rift within the group and raises questions about the likelihood of negotiations.
The commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, was not authorised to respond to the government’s offer, Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman, said on Saturday.
Muawiya has been removed from his position as leader of the Pakistani Taliban’s wing from central Punjab province, Shahid said.
Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister 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.
Sharif reiterated his desire to hold negotiations in a speech on Monday, but also said the government would leave open the possibility of using force.
The Pakistani Taliban withdrew on offer to negotiate at the end of May in response to a US drone strike that killed the group’s deputy commander.
Muawiya raised eyebrows on Thursday when he sent a statement to journalists saying fighters should respond positively to the government’s offer to hold peace talks if it was serious.
His view was seen as carrying weight because the Taliban’s leadership has supported his statements in the past, and he was the first person to indicate at the end of last year that the group was open to the possibility of holding negotiations.
The Taliban’s leader then issued a video affirming his position.
Shahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group’s leadership would meet to decide their position on the government’s offer.
“A decision about talks with the government should be taken after reviewing their position,” Shahid said, adding that the group did not appreciate the government’s “threats.”
Muawiya, however, defied the main group’s decision, telling The Associated Press that the executive council could not 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.
The idea of holding government peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart.
Pakistanis have criticised the agreements for allowing armed groups to rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and US-led troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could include provisions that threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.