MIRAMSHAH/ PESHAWAR/ ISLAMABAD:
Government negotiators and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) agreed to continue talks after the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides held in a remote tribal area on Wednesday.
However, according to sources, the fate of the month-long ceasefire as well as nascent peace process hinges on the release of ‘non-combatant’ Taliban prisoners allegedly in the custody of security agencies.
Chief Taliban intermediary Maulana Samiul Haq, who also attended the unprecedented meeting, described it as ‘positive’ which ‘helped reduce the trust-deficit’ between the government and the TTP.
“It’s a huge milestone [in the peace process]. For the first time, government representatives and the Taliban sat across the table to talk peace,” he told a news conference in Peshawar after returning from North Waziristan. He was flanked by his colleagues Prof Ibrahim and Maulana Yousaf Shah.
There were conflicting reports about exactly where the meeting took place. Some reports suggested it was in the Biland Khel area of Shawa Tehsil on the confluence of borders between Orakzai and North Waziristan tribal agencies. The Express Tribune, however, has learnt that the negotiations were held in the Speen Tal area of Shewa Tehsil.
The five-member government negotiating team, led by Secretary Ports and Shipping Habibullah Khattak, along with a colonel from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) flew on a helicopter to North Waziristan. The inclusion of the colonel is seen as a significant move after the army refused to become part of the official committee holding talks with the TTP.
The decision to include the ISI representative was believed to have been taken at the request of the Taliban intermediaries who believe this will lend more meaning to the process. There was no official confirmation of this, however.
Other government negotiators include FATA Additional Secretary Arbab Arif, Additional Secretary to Prime Minister Office Fawad Hassan Fawad, Major (retd) Aamir and former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand.
Maulana Samiul Haq, Professor Ibrahim and Maulana Yousaf Shah accompanied the government team. They flew into Speen Tal in a helicopter from where they left in vehicles for an undisclosed location. Government negotiators travelled on vehicles provided by the TTP.
According to Maulana Samiul Haq, two rounds of discussions were held between the two sides. During the seven-hour talks, both sides discussed efforts to further the process.
A participant of the meeting said that the issue of prisoners’ release turned out to be the major sticking point and it would decide the future of the ongoing fragile peace process.
Giving details, he told The Express Tribune on the condition of anonymity that the TTP Shura members accused the security agencies of continuing secret operations against the group despite the ceasefire.
The government team asked the TTP to extend its month-long ceasefire. However, the group did not give a firm assurance as it linked the decision to ‘tangible progress’ in talks.
TTP central spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid strongly denied the reports attributed to him earlier that the Taliban had agreed to extend the ceasefire and swap prisoners.
“In my opinion, the future of peace process depends on the issue of prisoners’ release,” said another participant of Wednesday’s meeting.
The TTP, he said, provided a fresh list of women and children who they claimed were in the custody of security agencies.
On the other hand, the government negotiators sought the releases of Peshawar University’s vice chancellor Professor Ajmal, Haider Gilani, son of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Shahbaz Taseer, son of slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. However, the TTP insisted that it would only release such captives if the government frees its ‘non-combatant’ prisoners.
It is expected that the government would take a final decision on the release of ‘non-combatants’ after consultations with both the government negotiators and Taliban intermediaries.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has reportedly convened a meeting of the government committee on Thursday (today) to get the first-hand briefing about Wednesday’s meeting.
The government negotiators, according to sources, also urged the TTP to identify groups which are not willing to talk and responsible for some of the deadly attacks recently during the ceasefire period.
Prof Ibrahim said the government negotiators and Taliban intermediaries will meet in a couple of days to sort out issues discussed in Wednesday’s meeting. “After that another meeting will be planned with the TTP Political Shura,” he added.
He said that the peace process would be taken to its logical conclusion. “We’ll try to avoid any deadlock in the process… The Taliban Political Shura members have hinted positively,” he added. However, Prof Ibrahim said it would take time to steer the country out of the decade-long war which has plunged the nation into chaos.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2014.