PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani Taliban spokesman on Sunday denied an earlier announcement by the militant group’s deputy chief that it was holding peace talks with the government.
The conflicting claims are a clear sign of splits within the movement, which could make it even harder to end the violent insurgency gripping the country.
Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, who has been recognized by both militants and officials as the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, had said on Saturday that the group was in negotiations with the government. Mohammed, the first named commander to confirm talks, said an agreement to end the country’s brutal four-year insurgency was within striking distance.
Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan denied Mohammed’s claims, saying there would be no negotiations until the government imposed Islamic law, or Shariah, in the country. The group says it wants to install a hardline Islamist regime.
Ehsan has on several occasions over the past six months dismissed reports of peace talks by unnamed militant commanders and intelligence officials.
"Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be deemed as the Taliban talking," Ehsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The U.S. has pushed for peace negotiations between the Afghan branch of the Taliban and Kabul, but the possibility of similar talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani branch could stoke concern in Washington.
Past deals between the Pakistani Taliban and the government have broken down and given the militants time to strengthen their fight inside the country and against U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
The group, which is closely allied with al-Qaida, has been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last 4 1/2 years. At least 35,000 people have been killed in suicide bombings, other insurgent attacks and army offensives.
But military operations and U.S. drone strikes have weakened the Pakistani Taliban, which has splintered into more than 100 smaller factions, according to security officials, analysts and tribesmen from the insurgent heartland.
The result is that the authority of individual commanders in the movement to control fighters and territory, already murky because of the Taliban’s clandestine nature, is now even more unclear.
Taliban deputy commander Mohammed’s main area of strength has been the Bajur tribal area along the Afghan border, but he reportedly fled to Afghanistan in recent years to escape army operations. He has long been identified as head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur and said a deal with the government there could be a "role model" for the rest of the border region.
But another commander, Mullah Dadullah, also now claims to be Taliban chief in Bajur. Dadullah contacted the AP on Sunday and denied the group, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, was negotiating with the government.
"As TTP chief responsible for Bajur, I am categorically saying there are no talks going on between the government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban at the Bajur level or the central level," Dadullah said, also speaking from an undisclosed location.
Ehsan, the spokesman, said Dadullah rather than Mohammed was the head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur.
Despite the Taliban’s record of indiscriminate violence, much of it directed at civilians, there is political and public support for peace talks. In September, the weak civilian government announced it was prepared to "give peace a chance" with militants, pandering to right-wing Islamist parties and their supporters.
Government-militant talks could strain the already troubled relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.
Ties suffered a severe blow when NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two army posts along the Afghan border on Nov. 26. Pakistan retaliated by closing its Afghan border to NATO supplies and boycotting an international conference aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.
It also gave the U.S. until Dec. 11 to vacate an air base used by American drones in southwestern Balochistan province. The American ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, has said the U.S. would do everything it could to meet the deadline.
Two U.S. military transport planes loaded with vehicles and equipment were waiting for approval to take off from Shamsi air base Sunday to complete the evacuation process, said a local Pakistani government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A U.S. Embassy representative could not be reached for comment.
Vacating Shamsi is not expected to significantly curtail drone attacks in Pakistan. The U.S. military used it to service drones which took off from Afghanistan heading to the border region, and then could not make it back to base because of mechanical or weather difficulties.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report from Quetta, Pakistan.