* Release of prisoners among demands
* Talks at "very difficult" stage
* Previous peace bids have failed
(Adds analyst, background)
By Michael Georgy and Qasim Nauman
ISLAMABAD, Nov 21 Pakistan's Taliban
movement, a major security threat to the country, is holding
exploratory peace talks with the government, a senior Taliban
commander and mediators told Reuters on Monday.
The United States, the source of billions of dollars of aid
vital for Pakistan's military and feeble economy, is unlikely to
look kindly on peace talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan
(TTP), which it has labelled a terrorist group.
Past peace pacts with the TTP have failed to bring
stability, and merely gave the umbrella group time and space to
consolidate, launch fresh attacks and impose their austere
version of Islam on segments of the population.
The discussions are focused on the South Waziristan region
on the Afghan border and could be expanded to try to reach a
comprehensive deal if progress is made.
The Taliban, who are close to al Qaeda, made several
demands, including the release of prisoners and the withdrawal
of Pakistani forces from South Waziristan, said the commander.
An ethnic Pashtun tribal mediator described the talks as
"very difficult". Pakistani military and government officials
were not immediately available for comment.
"Yes, we have been holding talks, but this is just an
initial phase. We will see if there is a breakthrough," said the
senior Taliban commander, who asked not to be identified.
"Right now, this is at the South Waziristan level. If
successful, we can talk about a deal for all the tribal areas,"
he said, referring to Pashtun lands along the Afghan border.
The TTP, allied with the Afghan Taliban movement fighting
U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, is entrenched in the unruly
areas along the porous frontier.
Pakistan has come under pressure to eradicate militancy
since U.S. special forces in May killed Osama bin Laden in a
Pakistani town, where he had apparently been living for years.
Pakistan's government and military have said they had no
idea bin Laden was in Pakistan and have yet to explain the
The operation enraged Pakistan's military, which branded it
a violation of sovereignty and then reduced cooperation on
intelligence critical for U.S. efforts to stabilise the region
as it winds down combat operations in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. won't be happy," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a
Pakistani expert on the Taliban. "If there is less pressure from
Pakistan on the militants then they (the Pakistani Taliban) will
turn their attention to Afghanistan."
Speculation on peace talks has been rife since the
government said in a September all-party conference on a crisis
in relations with the United States that it would attempt
negotiations with militants to bring peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a visit
to Islamabad last month that Washington and Pakistan should
focus on getting all militants to pursue peace in Afghanistan.
Because Pakistan has a long history of ties to militants in
Afghanistan, it is seen as critical to the U.S. bid to pacify
the nation after ten years of war.
"The timing is linked to the change in approach in
Afghanistan, where there is now a willingness to negotiate,"
Mansur Khan Mehsud, of Pakistan's FATA Research Centre think
tank, said of the preliminary talks in Pakistan.
"The thinking here is, if it can happen in Afghanistan, why
can't we talk peace with the Taliban here in Pakistan?"
Since bin Laden's death, the TTP has vowed to attack Western
"We never wanted to fight to begin with," said the senior
Taliban commander. "Our aim was to rid Afghanistan of foreign
forces. But the Pakistani government, by supporting America,
left us no choice but to fight."
One of the tribal elders involved in the talks said they
were at a "very difficult" stage.
"We have had three rounds in the last two months, but there
seems to be no result," he said. "It is too difficult to say if
there will be a breakthrough, but we are moving in the right
The TTP was formed in 2007 and is blamed for many of the
suicide bombings across nuclear-armed Pakistan, one of the
world's most unstable but strategically important countries.
Its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a U.S. drone
aircraft missile strike in northwest Pakistan in 2009.
The group has staged audacious attacks on government
installations, even army headquarters near the capital, and the
violence has also killed many civilians.
While its activities have been almost entirely confined to
Pakistan, the TTP has shown an interest in expanding its range
under the banner of al Qaeda.
A suicide bombing at a U.S. base in Afghanistan's Khost
province in 2009 killed seven Central Intelligence Agency
employees. In video footage released after the attack, the
bomber was shown sitting with TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
A Pakistani-born American who tried to set off a car bomb in
New York's Times Square last year told a U.S. court he got
bomb-making training and funding from the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan's government reached a widely criticised peace deal
with the Taliban in Swat Valley in 2009 which Washington called
an abdication to the group.
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway; Writing by Michael