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Pakistani PM Sharif scotches Taleban offensive speculation ‘Peace talks deserved another chance’

ISLAMABAD, Jan 29, (AFP): Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday dismissed speculation he would launch an offensive against the Taleban following a wave of bloody attacks, saying peace talks deserved another chance. In a highly anticipated speech before parliament, Sharif also called on militants to observe a ceasefire and named a committee to assist in dialogue efforts. Just hours earlier, three bomb blasts including a suicide attack targeting Pakistani security forces killed at least four people in the commercial hub of Karachi, with the Taleban later claiming responsibility. The government has come under fire for failing to set a strategy to respond to a surge in militant violence which has resulted in 114 deaths since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.

Sharif was elected last year vowing to reach out to the Taleban and engage in talks to end their insurgency that has raged since 2007. In his address on Wednesday, Sharif paid an emotional tribute to the victims of terrorism, saying: “Common citizens are being targeted and our innocent children are dying. The society is surrounded by fear.” “The acts of terrorism have to be stopped forthwith, because terrorism and talks cannot go side by side,” he said. He also slammed the Taleban for rejecting the government’s first offer of talks and distorting the teachings of Islam, adding: “Our very existence is endangered. We cannot allow the nation and the country to be hostage to militants.” He continued: “I know that today if the state wants to eliminate terrorists by force, the entire nation will stand by it. However, when the offer of talks has come to the fore from the other side, we... want to give the peaceful solution another chance.” To assist in these efforts, Sharif said he would form a fourman committee with expertise in matters related to militancy.

Taleban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP its central Shura, or consultative council, was meeting to consider the new development. “We are ready for meaningful negotiations provided the government shows sincerity of purpose,” the spokesman added. But many observers doubt the initiative will have an impact given the demands of the Taleban, which include a release of their prisoners, the Pakistan army’s withdrawal from the restive tribal areas and an end to US drone strikes.

Meanwhile, a senior Pakistani official said Tuesday that the government was increasingly inclined to wage an offensive against the local Taleban as the country endures a wave of bloody attacks. On a visit to Washington, where officials have long backed action against extremist outposts, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s national security adviser Sartaj Aziz described semi-autonomous North Waziristan as the “last challenge” in asserting state control. “The government decided initially in consultation with all political parties to have a dialogue with the Taleban,” Aziz said. “But that is proving much more difficult, so the other option of using force... is likely to be now considered more seriously,” he said at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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