PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The Pakistani Taliban have declared a cease-fire to encourage nascent peace talks with the government, a senior commander said, a move that appears to show the deadly group's willingness to strike a deal.
It was unclear Tuesday whether all the militants claiming to be under the Taliban banner would obey the directive, which the commander said had been in effect for a month. The Pakistani Taliban are believed to be divided into many factions. There has also been significant militant violence in the country in recent weeks.
Hours after the Taliban announcement, state-run Pakistan Television quoted Interior Minister Rehman Malik as saying that the government had not held formal talks with the Taliban.
"But if the Taliban has announced a cease-fire, we welcome it," it quoted Malik as telling reporters in the southwestern city of Quetta.
The Pakistani Taliban, allied with Al Qaeda and based in the northwest close to the Afghan border, have been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last 4 1/2 years. At least 35,000 people have been killed in guerrilla attacks and army offensives.
The Taliban want to oust the U.S.-backed government and install a hardline Islamist regime. They also have international ambitions and trained the Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square in 2010.
The United States, which has pounded the Taliban with missiles fired by drones, wants Pakistan to keep the pressure on insurgents and would likely be concerned about any effort to strike a deal. Many of America's fiercest foes in Afghanistan -- as well as Al Qaeda operatives from around the world -- live alongside the militants in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan.
The commander said the cease-fire was valid throughout the country.
"We are not attacking the Pakistan army and government installations because of the peace process," he said late Monday. The commander is close to Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not the official spokesman of the insurgent network.
His statement adds credence to announcements by anonymous Taliban and intelligence officials that government intermediaries recently met with Taliban commanders to talk about a possible peace deal. The government has not officially commented, and the army denied Tuesday it was involved in any talks.
Much remains unclear about the nature of the reported talks and their potential. Both the army and the militants have previously engaged in misinformation. Some reports have said any deal would cover only one region in the northwest, South Waziristan, but could be extended.
Pakistan has cut deals with militant factions in the past, several of which quickly broke down after giving the insurgents time to regroup.
Army offensives against the Taliban are unpopular among many Pakistanis, many of whom view the militants as misguided Muslim brothers rather than terrorists. Right-wing and Islamist parties that support their aims have long called for a peace deal.
This view appeared to get traction in September when government leaders, opposition politicians and other national figures met in Islamabad and produced a vague resolution in support of peace moves with militants. Despite this, the government's official line is that they will talk only with militants who lay down their arms.
Mohammed Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said the cease-fire announcement was an indication that "the peace process is starting," saying it could fulfill a government condition for talks. But he also advised caution, noting "the Pakistani Taliban has many factions and it's not clear who is behind this."
"The situation will come clear in the coming days," he said.