Mullah Fazlullah, the Pakistani Taliban's new hardline leader, has
rejected outright the idea of peace talks and vowed to step up
attacks as part of his campaign to topple the central government and
establish Islamist rule in Pakistan.
The emergence of Fazlullah has prompted speculation that Pakistan
might have to ditch hopes for a negotiated ceasefire and resort to
military action against militants holed up in lawless ethnic Pashtun
areas on the Afghan border.
But on Tuesday, the government said the Taliban's tough rhetoric did
not mean negotiations had failed.
"Their public posturing is different from what's going on in the
background," said Tariq Azeem, a senior official in Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif's team. "They want to appear tough but back channels
show that they are also interested in talks."
The Taliban could not be immediately reached for comment.
Under Fazlullah, Taliban fighters took over Pakistan's Swat valley
in 2009, imposing austere Islamic rule and eventually prompting the
army to launch a major offensive to flush them out of the strategic
region just 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Islamabad.
Sharif chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on National
Security on Tuesday where officials confirmed their commitment to
talks rather than military action.
"The Committee deliberated upon the government's strategy to engage
various groups of Pakistani Taliban to address issues of extremism
and militancy," Sharif's office said in a statement.
"The Committee reaffirmed (the) government's commitment to the
strategy of negotiations with TTP (Pakistani Taliban) and consider
the use of other options only as a last resort."
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Fazlullah, who fled to Afghanistan after the 2009 operation, has now
returned to his homeland to lead the insurgency. He was named the
leader last month after his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was
killed in a U.S. drone strike on November 1.
Nicknamed "Mullah Radio" for his fiery broadcasts in Swat, Fazlullah
is best known for ordering the assassination of teenage female
education activist Malala Yousafzai. She survived the attack and now
lives in Britain.
Fazlullah has now promised a new campaign of shootings and bombings
against the government, particularly in densely populated Punjab
province — Sharif's political powerbase.
But, a month after he took over as the Taliban chief, there have
been no major attacks in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban are allied with the Afghan Taliban but Afghan
Taliban militants are intent on expelling foreign forces from
Afghanistan and do not fight the Pakistani government.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)
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