A long-awaited first round of peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the government has been held in Islamabad after numerous delays and growing doubt over the chance of their success.
The two sides met on Thursday for a preliminary meeting likely to chart a “road map” for future discussions, amid deep scepticism over whether dialogue can yield a lasting peace deal. The talks will resume on Friday.
Pakistani Taliban fighters have been battling for years to topple the central government and establish Islamic rule, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif believes the movement is now ready to find a negotiated settlement and stop the fighting.
In a statement after the meeting, which lasted over three hours, the two sides stressed their commitment to dialogue.
“Both committees concluded that all sides should refrain from any act that could damage the talks,” it said. “Both condemn recent acts of violence in Pakistan, saying such efforts should not sabotage the talks.”
Irfan Siddiqui, a government negotiator picked by Sharif, sent a text message from the meeting to the Reuters news agency, describing the atmosphere as “cordial and friendly”.
The peace initiative, which Sharif announced just as many were anticipating a major military offensive on Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) strongholds in the North Waziristan tribal area, got off to a chaotic start earlier this week.
The government delegation missed the planned opening meeting on Tuesday saying they were unsure of who was representing the TTP at the talks and what powers they had been given.
Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed eight people in a sectarian attack against minority Shia Muslims in the northwestern city of Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to the talks.
The main TTP spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar told the AFP news agency his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced.
Stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as important to neighbouring Afghanistan, where US-led NATO troops are pulling out after more than a decade of war.
Washington has said it is watching the talks closely. It has long been pushing Pakistan to take action against armed groups using the tribal areas as a base to attack NATO forces across the border.
One of the TTP’s negotiating team, Maulana Abdul Aziz, said on Wednesday that there was no chance of peace unless the government agreed to the armed group’s demand for Islamic law to be imposed throughout Pakistan.
The government has insisted that Pakistan’s constitution must remain paramount.