PESHAWAR: Despite a degree of optimism and feel-good impression generated by the militant-handpicked committee, insiders believe the first direct face-to-face interaction with militants has hit a stalemate and unless some quick decisions are taken, it will be difficult to prolong the ceasefire. The ceasefire is to expire on Monday.
According to an insider, the militants have set two conditions for continuation of the peace talks. One, the creation of a demilitarised peace zone in mountainous Shaktoi, South Waziristan, to allow freedom of movement and two, the release of non-combatants.
The insider said the five-member militants’ committee sought written guarantees before they could commit to an extension in the month-long ceasefire. “For nearly seven hours, we talked to them about the destruction wrought by over a decade of violence, the loss of lives and property and displacement of people.
“We said ‘let bygones be bygones, let’s bury the hatchet and make a new beginning’,” the insider said.
“Nothing seemed to appeal to them. I have come back really disappointed. The chances of success and continuation are not terribly bright. This is a non-starter,” he said.
“We couldn’t offer any written guarantees. It was not our mandate, so we came back without winning any commitment either for an extension of ceasefire or the release of non-combatants in their custody,” he said. “The militants have tied the continuation of the peace talks or extension of ceasefire on acceptance of their demands.”
He described the situation as a stalemate, adding it was now for the federal government to reply.
He said that militants had handed them over a list of 250 non-combatants. The list includes names of women, children and the elderly. The military has already denied they have women, children and the elderly in their custody. “We told them we will investigate the matter,” the insider said.
The militants’ committee also handed the committee representing the state a list of some seven hundred combatants for a possible release.
He said the militant leaders’ argument for a demilitarised peace zone was to ensure they could move around freely. “They said it took them two days to get to the venue of the talks at Bilandkhel, crossing streams and walking through mountains.”
The militants insisted the ceasefire was unilateral and accused the government of not respecting the terms of disengagement. “They brought out a list of incidents involving raids by security forces in Mohmand, Bajaur, Karachi and other places.
“They said that our people were being picked up and tortured. We responded by pointing out the execution of 23 militiamen. But the argument didn’t work,” the insider said.
RESCUE ACT: What could salvage the situation, the insider was asked. “The government will have to release some non-combatants as a confidence-building measure. It may consider ‘quietly releasing a few others too’.”
Asked if the militants showed any willingness to release Prof Ajmal Khan, the aged Vice Chancellor of Peshawar University, Shahbaz Taseer, son of the late governor of Punjab, and Ali Haider Gilani, son of the former prime minister, the insider said: “We brought up the matter of their release and asked if they would be willing to release them.
“We said they were also non-combatants and must be released as part of confidence-building measures. Their response was straight.
They could swap Ajmal Khan for three of their fighters arrested in connection with his abduction - a proposition the TTP had made a year ago.
Furthermore, they said, those in captivity belonged to political parties the militants are at war with and therefore, they were not non-combatants.”
Asked how soon the talks could resume, the insider said it depended on how soon the government replied to the demands. This could happen before the expiry of the ceasefire, possibly in Bakkakhel in Frontier Region (FR) Bannu, on the boundary with North Waziristan. The area could be converted into a peace zone, he suggested.
“The first meeting was more about confidence-building measures and we couldn’t make any progress there. What will happen when we talk about more substantive issues,” the insider wondered.
There were some tense moments. When one member of the committee, who represented the state, tried to explain in his opening remarks why the Taliban campaign in this country cannot be called a ‘Jihad’, Qari Shakeel, a key member of the Taliban committee, advised him not to lecture them about “Jihad”. Another member of the government committee had to intervene to cool down the atmosphere.
But amid the serious talk, there were some lighter moments as well, recalled the insider. What he found most amusing was the journey to and from the venue of the negotiations. A paramilitary unit escorted them and turned them over to the militants for onward journey to an unknown place and when the militants escorted them on their way back, they handed them over to the unit for onward journey. “It was simply a handing over, taking over ceremony. They even shook hands with each other. This brought a smile to my lips, ” the insider said.