PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban demanded Sunday that the government release militant prisoners and begin withdrawing troops from the group’s tribal sanctuary before they will participate in peace talks, raising doubts about prospects for negotiations.
The demands came as a roadside bomb killed a major general and two other soldiers as they were riding in a vehicle in the country’s northwest, the military said. The general was the top army commander in an area of the northwest containing the Swat Valley, where the military carried out a major offensive against the Taliban in 2009.
The Taliban’s leadership council decided on the need for confidence building measures ahead of peace talks while meeting to discuss the government’s offer to hold negotiations, said the group’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid.
Pakistan’s major political parties endorsed peace talks with the Taliban last week as the best way to end a decade-long insurgency that has killed thousands of people. But it’s unclear what steps the government is willing to take to convince the militants to sit down at the negotiating table.
It’s also unclear what would be acceptable to the army, which has lost thousands of soldiers fighting the Taliban and is considered the strongest institution in the country.
“The Taliban have been deceived in the past in the name of peace, so the government will have to take some steps before the start of talks to assure the Taliban that the government is serious about the peace process,” Shahid told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The government must release Pakistani Taliban militants it is holding prisoner and show that it is withdrawing soldiers from the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan, said Shahid.
“If the government does not take these two steps, the peace process cannot go forward,” said Shahid.
Intelligence officials and militant commanders said the Taliban and the army exchanged a small number of prisoners last week as a confidence building measure ahead of talks, but the army denied the swap.
The army has carried out scores of operations against the Taliban in the tribal region, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out regular attacks.
The roadside bomb that killed Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi and two other soldiers Sunday was planted near the Afghan border in Upper Dir district, the military said. Upper Dir and the Swat Valley, both of which were under his command, are located in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Also Sunday, a roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded another in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country.
On Saturday night, militants ambushed a group of tribal policemen riding in a vehicle near the northwest town of Bannu, killing two of them and wounding four others.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Many observers are skeptical about peace talks with the Taliban since prior agreements with the militants have fallen apart. Critics say the deals simply gave the militants time to regroup and continue their fight against the state.
It’s also unclear what room for compromise the Taliban and the government would find if they did sit down to negotiate. The militants have criticized Pakistan’s democratic system, demanded the imposition of Islamic law and stipulated the government must break off its alliance with the United States.
Even if the two sides could come to an agreement, it’s unclear how well the Taliban could enforce it on their side. There are dozens of militant groups based in the tribal region with varying degrees of allegiance to the Taliban.
The U.S. is wary of a peace deal because it could give Afghan Taliban militants greater space to conduct cross-border attacks against U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. But it could be hard for the U.S. to push back against negotiations since it wants Pakistan’s help in striking a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused on different targets. The Afghan Taliban have fought coalition troops in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Taliban have largely focused on battling the Pakistani state.
The Pakistani Taliban indicated they were open to holding peace talks at the end of last year but withdrew that offer in May after the group’s deputy leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Despite the Taliban’s reluctance, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has continued to push for negotiations since he took office in June.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.