ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani government team traveled on Wednesday to a secret location in the country's northwest where it held the first-ever direct talks with the Taliban, a senior Cabinet minister said.
However, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid did not share any details of the landmark talks, saying only that once the negotiators returned, it would be up to the government to make statements to media.
The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, confirmed the talks were held in a cordial atmosphere. The negotiations are part of a push by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban that would end a bloody insurgency that has killed thousands of people in recent years.
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 years-long violence.
The Pakistani team, headed by government official Habibullah Khan Khattak, flew on Wednesday morning by helicopter to the location for the talks, described as a "peace zone." 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, with many operating outside the Taliban control, including both local and foreign al-Qaida-linked militant outfits.
The direct talks were originally to take place on Tuesday, but bad weather prevented the government helicopter from traveling to the northwest. The talks, promoted by Sharif, have proceeded in fits and starts since he took office last year. So far, the two sides held only indirect talks, with the Taliban represented by two clerics, Khan, the professor, and Maulana Samiul Haq.
Haq was also on board the helicopter from Islamabad on Wednesday, traveling with Khattak in an effort to facilitate the meeting. The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban share 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.