After Pakistani church bombing, Sharif gives up on Taliban peace talks

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 23, 2013 

— Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called off plans for unconditional peace talks with militant insurgents after a series of deadly terrorist attacks that culminated in Sunday’s suicide bombing of a church, which killed 83 people.

“We had proposed peace talks with the Taliban in good faith but . . . because of this attack, the government is unable to move forward with what it planned and envisaged,” a visibly upset Sharif said late Sunday on a flight to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Peace talks with militants from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the formal name for the Pakistani Taliban, were a key part of Sharif’s platform in the campaign ahead of May’s parliamentary elections, which his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won. The Taliban seemed to favor his proposal, excluding from their pre-election terror campaign candidates from Sharif’s party and another party that had favored peace talks, the Movement for Justice Party.

But since Sharif won approval for the talks in September from leaders of the country’s political parties, the Taliban have stepped up attacks, apparently seeing the idea of talks as a sign of weakness within Sharif’s government and of division with Pakistan’s powerful military, which opposed negotiations from the beginning.

Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud ordered the intensification of the militants’ campaign of attacks and then on Sept. 14 issued two conditions for talks: the release of 50 jailed militant commanders and the withdrawal from the Taliban-infested northwest tribal areas of 150,000 Pakistani troops deployed there.

Mehsud then incensed the military by assassinating a two-star army general the following day in the northern Dir district, where Pakistani troops have been fighting Pakistani Taliban factions that fled there after military campaigns in 2009.

The assassination of Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, the highest-ranking officer to have died in a combat area since the 2007 launch of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, strained relations between the military and Sharif, whose government had failed even to find intermediaries capable of setting up a dialogue with the militants.

Niazi’s killing also angered the Pakistani public, particularly in the populous eastern section of Punjab province, a stronghold of Sharif’s and the military’s major recruiting ground. The church attack Sunday ended any outstanding public ambivalence, as political parties and civil society rallied behind the Christian community, which makes up roughly 2 percent of Pakistan’s estimated 200 million population.

Sharif’s choice of words indicated little hope of salvaging the peace initiative. He described the insurgents as “enemies of Pakistan” and apostates.

“Terrorists have no religion. . . . Targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all other faiths,” he said.

The church bombing in the city of Peshawar also increased calls for Sharif to order the military to launch an assault on Pakistani Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan. Such an offensive has been discussed for years.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Karachi.

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