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Pakistani Taleban reject offer to swap their guns for cricket bats Locals fear army preparing for big military offensive

 MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Feb 26, (Agencies): The Pakistani Taleban on Monday rejected an offer to swap their guns for cricket bats and play a match for peace, saying the sport was responsible for turning youth away from jihad. The militant group were responding to a call made earlier in the day by a top Pakistani minister who offered to host a match with the militants to revive stalled peace talks in comments which provoked derision on social media.

Pakistan’s government entered into a formal dialogue with the Taleban earlier this month, but the process faltered after the militants executed 23 kidnapped soldiers. The military has retaliated with a series of air strikes in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan and are home to the Taleban’s top leadership, killing dozens. With talks on a sticky wicket, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said Monday that cricket could offer hope. “I have information that the Taleban keep an interest in cricket. So if this message can go through to them, we can have a cricket match with them which can have a better result,” he told reporters in Islamabad following an exhibition game. “The Taleban follow the Pakistan cricket team with keen interest so this can be a platform.” But speaking to AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location, Taleban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said his group would refuse to play ball. “These secular people want to distance our youth from jihad and Islamic teachings through cricket. We are strongly against cricket and dislike it,” he said. “We are ready to open the deadlock in peace talks created by the government. The government is not sincere in peace talks, but Taleban are ready for it.” Reaction to the minister’s suggestion that the Taleban could be tempted into talks through cricket was also overwhelmingly negative on Twitter, which is used mainly by the country’s Englishspeaking elite. In a reference to bloody toll inflicted by the Taleban on Pakistan’s forces over the years, one user called @MidhatZ, said: “Cricket on a red pitch and may be they could bowl with our soldiers heads?” Another user, @kursed, termed the minister a “bloody lunatic” and said “he should invite the families of those beheaded” by the Taleban to the match. Cricket is Pakistan’s main pastime and is sometimes termed the country’s “second religion” after Islam.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a diehard fan. And former cricketer Imran Khan now leads Pakistan’s third largest political party. Cricket diplomacy has helped thaw ties between Pakistan and rival India in the past, with a visit by military ruler General Zia Ul Haq to Jaipur in 1987 to watch a Test match seen as key in cooling raised tensions. Meanwhile, fears of a major operation heightened this month after talks broke down and the Islamist Taliban told the government there was no chance of peace unless Islamabad changed its political and legal system and officially embraced Islamic law. “Every day heavy arms and ammunition are being shifted to Waziristan and then warplanes bomb villages,” Khan said by telephone from Bannu. Two-thirds of the population of his village in the Mir Ali area have fled, he said.

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