PESHAWAR: Government negotiators held on Wednesday first face-to-face talks with Taliban leaders in an area adjacent to North Waziristan.

According to official sources, the meeting was held at the residence of retired Subedar of Frontier Corps, identified only as Jamil, in Bilandkhel area of Orakzai Agency near garrison town of Thall.

Members of the government and TTP committees flew from Peshawar to Thall in a military helicopter and later went to Bilandkhel.

According to the sources, the meeting between government negotiators and TTP Shura members was held in two sessions. Maulana Samiul Haq, Professor Ibrahim and Maulana Yousaf Shah, members of the TTP committee, also attended the talks.

The sources said an official of a premier intelligence agency was also present.

The government team comprises federal secretaries Habibullah Khan and Fawad Hassan, additional chief secretary Fata Arbab Mohammad Arif, former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand and ex-ISI officer Mohammad Amir.

The Shura of the outlawed TTP was represented by Qari Shakil, Maulana Azam Tariq, Maulvi Bashir and Maulvi Zakir.

The sources said the issues of extending the ceasefire announced by the TTP and release of prisoners held by the two sides came under discussion.

The government has demanded release of Ajmal Khan, Vice Chancellor of Islamia College University, Peshawar; Ali Haider Gilani, son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani; and Shahbaz Taseer, son of slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer.

Taliban are yet to confirm that these people are in their custody.

The TTP has demanded release of about 300 non-combatants, including women, children and the elderly who, it claims, are in the custody of security forces. The army has denied the claim.

Addressing a press conference in Peshawar after returning from Thall in the evening, TTP negotiators called the direct contact between the government committee and the Taliban leadership an important development and said the nation would soon hear good news.

Maulana Samiul Haq, head of the TTP committee, said the two sides had agreed to continue talks and take them to logical conclusion. The next round of talks was expected in a couple of days, he added.

He did not divulge details of the demands made by the two sides and major points taken up during the talks, but quoted the Taliban leaders as saying that they now knew who were in favour of peace and who were against it.

The Maulana said the meeting started at 11am and continued till 5pm. Both sides listened to each other’s points of view with patience. “With these direct talks, the process of confidence-building has started which is nothing short of a miracle,” he said.

He expressed the hope that all hurdles would be overcome and both sides would strive to avoid any deadlock in talks.

At the outset of the press conference, Maulana Yousaf Shah said he would not answer any question. But at the insistence of journalists who wanted to know whether the ceasefire would continue, Maulana Sami and Professor Ibrahim only said the nation would soon hear good news.

Prof Ibrahim said there was hope for ending the decade-long conflict. He said the peace mission had been initiated by Maulana Samiul Haq for which the entire nation was grateful to him. He claimed that both the Taliban and the government wanted restoration of peace.

According to AP news agency, Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid cast the meeting in a positive light. “The talks with the government team were held in a cordial atmosphere. The two sides discussed all the issues, including how to exchange each other’s prisoners and continue the ceasefire.”

He said the Taliban treated the government team as “guests”.

But talking to AFP, Shahidullah said he had no news to share. “I am yet to see Shura members who held talks with the government team and I will share the details later once I have a meeting with them.”

Talking to journalists in Islamabad, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said he had nothing to share with the media. He, however, said: “The government team is there for talks with the Taliban, and the peace process is progressing well.”

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