ISLAMABAD — Peace talks between Pakistani officials and a three-member team representing the Taliban were delayed Tuesday after government negotiators failed to show up for a first round they had agreed to, a top cleric said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been pushing for negotiations over military operations to end militant violence in the Islamic country, where over 40,000 people in recent years have been killed in acts of terrorism. Authorities blame most of the deaths on Pakistani Taliban.
Both sides recently named their negotiating teams, which had been expected to meet Tuesday in the capital, Islamabad.
But Maulana Samiul Haq, a Pakistani cleric picked by the Taliban to represent them, said his team had waited in vain.
“We waited for the government team today, but they did not come,” he told reporters, claiming that authorities were under U.S. pressure to avoid the talks.
A member of the government’s team however said his side had been waiting for the Taliban to confirm to them the identities of their negotiating team.
Rahimullah Yousufzai said that now that the government has received such confirmation, they were ready to meet.
“We did not meet with the representatives of the Taliban as we needed some clarity from them,” he said, adding: “now we have received that clarification and the meeting will take place in the next two days.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, prayed for the success of the talks. “May God help these people in this noble task,” he said about Haq and two other members of the Taliban team.
Militants in Pakistan began targeting security forces and civilians in retaliation for Pakistan throwing its weight behind the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan and for going after militants in the tribal areas.
The violence has put pressure on Sharif to use force against the militants. In an apparent move to avoid any such operation, Pakistani Taliban recently agreed for the peace talks.
Over the weekend, the Taliban named a five-member committee, including ex-cricketer Imran Khan, to represent them in talks with the government. Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf party runs the government in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province near the Taliban’s tribal strongholds, says the Taliban should select its own members as representatives.
Khan is strongly pro-negotiations and has led a campaign against U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in the northwest. The Taliban have been fighting to topple the government and enforce their hard-line brand of Islam across the country.
Critics say several such peace initiatives in the past failed and only emboldened the militants.