Pakistani officials hold direct talks with Taliban

A Pakistani government team held direct talks with the Taliban after traveling Wednesday to a secret location in the country's northwest, a Taliban spokesman and senior Cabinet minister said.

Although previous Pakistani governments have spoken directly with Taliban representatives, these are the first such negotiations since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office last June. In recent weeks, intermediaries representing the two sides have met and laid the groundwork for the direct talks, part of a push by Sharif's government to strike a peace deal to end an insurgency that has killed thousands of people in recent years.

Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid did not share any details of the talks, saying only that once the negotiators returned, it would be up to the government to make statements to media.

"The government team is there for the talks with the Taliban, and the peace process is progressing well," he said.

The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, spoke positively of the meeting.

"The talks with the government team were held in a cordial atmosphere today. The two sides discussed all the issues, including how to exchange each other's prisoners and continue the cease-fire," he said. Shahid said the Taliban treated the government team as "guests" and that the team was on its way to a safe location.

Earlier, Ibrahim Khan, a professor and a cleric who has represented the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan -- as the Pakistani Taliban is formally called -- told reporters that the face-to-face discussions were aimed at ending the violence.

The talks were originally to have taken place on Tuesday, but bad weather prevented the government team, headed by Secretary for Port and Shipping Habibullah Khan Khattak, from traveling by helicopter to the northwest.

The negotiations come at a sensitive time for Pakistan, where daily militant attacks challenge the government's authority.

The Taliban, who operate in the northwest, have announced a cease-fire during the talks, but attacks claimed by their splinter groups have continued. Shahid, the TTP spokesman, has denied the group's involvement in the recent violence.

The main challenges of negotiating a peace settlement are the many groups and factions behind the violence. Many groups operate independently of the Taliban, including both local and foreign Al Qaeda-linked militant outfits.

Before Wednesday, the two sides held only indirect talks, with the Taliban represented by Khan and another cleric, Maulana Samiul Haq.

Haq also participated in Wednesday's meeting.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban share a similar ideology, but the Pakistani Taliban have a separate leadership structure and focus their efforts on attacking the Pakistani government and trying to impose their harsh form of Islam in the country. The Afghan and U.S. governments have held indirect talks through intermediaries with the Afghan Taliban.