ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Peace talks between the Pakistani government and Taliban insurgents broke down on Monday after insurgents said they executed 23 soldiers in revenge for army operations in the volatile tribal regions on the Afghan border.
Pakistan watchers have always been skeptical that negotiations with the outlawed militant group could ever bring peace in a country where the Taliban are fighting to topple the government and set up an Islamic state.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the latest round of talks last month just as speculation was heating up that the army was preparing to launch a major ground and air offensive against Islamist strongholds on its western frontier.
“It is sad that we are not moving in the right direction,” Irfan Siddiqui, a government negotiator, said in a statement, adding that there was now “no use” holding a meeting with Taliban representatives planned for Monday.
The Taliban wing operating in the tribal Mohmand agency said in a statement the Pakistani soldiers, who were kidnapped in 2010, had been executed in revenge for the killing of their fighters by army forces.
It also issued a video message in Pashto explaining its motives but the footage did not show the bodies.
The Pakistani Taliban’s main spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, could not immediately say if Mohmand Taliban actions had been endorsed by the movement’s central command or indeed when or whether the negotiations would resume.
In a sign the central Taliban leadership was not in control of its fringe groups, a cleric representing the insurgents in the talks distanced himself from the Mohmand attack.
“We are also sad to hear the news of the Mohmand agency incident,” Maulana Yousuf Shah said in remarks broadcast on Pakistani television.
The Pakistani Taliban, who operate separately from their Afghan namesakes, are deeply divided, so striking a deal with the central leadership is unlikely to result in peace.
Many in Pakistan believe the government is setting itself for failure by trying to talk to a group which has killed about 40,000 people since the birth of the insurgency in 2007.
Overshadowed by persistent violence, talks faltered shortly after starting on February 6, with more than 100 people dying in insurgent violence across the country since then.
The Taliban however have so far claimed responsibility only for one attack, the one on Thursday when 13 policemen were killed in a bomb explosion.
“Such incidents are affecting the peace talks negatively after they started to bring a peaceful solution to the problem,” Sharif said in a statement.
“Pakistan cannot afford such bloodshed. ... The situation is very sad and the whole nation is shocked.”
A failure to reach a negotiated ceasefire would also raise the specter of a major military offensive in North Waziristan, a region where many al Qaeda-linked militants are based.
But it is also bound to unnerve ordinary people in Pakistan tired after years of violence in a region already nervous ahead of a planned foreign troops withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan this year.
The army publicly supports Sharif’s call for talks but in private senior officers speak strongly against it, giving rise to talk that the military is waiting for an excuse to go into action.
In a possible sign of the changing mood, Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician who has been an outspoken proponent of the talks, said in a statement: “Clearly this is also a direct sabotage of the peace talks in the most barbaric way possible”.
Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Writing by Maria Golovnina