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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Taliban movement, a major security threat to the country, is holding exploratory peace talks with the US-backed 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 labeled 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.

The Taliban, who are close to al-Qaeda, made several demands, including the release of prisoners, said the commander.

An ethnic Pashtun tribal mediator described the talks as "very difficult."

"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, which is allied with the Afghan Taliban movement fighting US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan, is entrenched in the unruly areas along the porous border.

Pakistan has come under pressure to eradicate militancy since US 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 intelligence gap.

The operation enraged Pakistan's military, which branded it a violation of sovereignty and then reduced cooperation on intelligence critical for US efforts to stabilize the region as it winds down combat operations in Afghanistan.

"The US 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.

"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."

Since bin Laden's death, the TTP has vowed to attack Western targets abroad.

Pakistani military and government officials were not immediately available for comment.

"This is a very difficult stage. We have had three rounds in the last two months, but there seems to be no result," said one of the tribal elders involved in the talks.

"It is too difficult to say if there will be a breakthrough, but we are moving in the right direction."

Updated Nov 21, 2011 10:15am

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