The Pakistan government and the proscribed militant organisation Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have agreed to extend the ceasefire indefinitely amid ongoing negotiations between them to end the 15-year-long militancy in the country's tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Sources told PTI that the ceasefire, which was to come to an end on the night of May 30, has been extended for an indefinite period.
The TTP, also called the Pakistan Taliban, is an alliance of militant networks formed in 2007 to unify opposition against the Pakistani military and its stated objectives are the expulsion of Islamabad’s influence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan and the implementation of a strict interpretation of sharia throughout Pakistan, according to the US National Counter Counterterrorism Center.
It is believed to be close to Al-Qaeda and it has been blamed for several deadly attacks across Pakistan, including an attack on Army Headquarters in 2009, assaults on military bases, and the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
The Dawn newspaper reported that the ceasefire extension indicates significant progress in talks between the two sides in Afghanistan's capital Kabul, citing sources familiar with the development.
Citing Sources, the paper said that the two sides had agreed to extend the ceasefire and continue peace talks following separate meetings with Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, acting Prime Minister of the Taliban-led Afghanistan government, at his office the other day.
These sources said that in his meetings with the two sides, Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund expressed his desire that the talks and ceasefire should be allowed to continue without any cut-off date.
In a subsequent joint meeting, the two sides agreed to extend the ceasefire indefinitely and pursue negotiations to end the conflict that has seen mass dislocation and killings of thousands of people in Pakistan’s tribal region and the country at large.
Afghanistan's interim Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani had issued statements early this month, announcing extension in the ceasefire till May 30.
No official statement has been issued so far regarding the indefinite extension in ceasefire.
The development follows days of "intense and extensive negotiations" in Kabul by senior level delegations from the two sides that at one point seemed close to breakdown. Afghanistan's acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the central mediator, helped bring the talks back on track, sources said.
The Pakistan government had demonstrated its seriousness by acceding to some of the TTP’s demands after the Afghan Taliban suggested it would be important for confidence-building to move from preliminaries to formal and structured negotiations.
The release of prisoners and presidential pardon to two key militant commanders, including TTP Swat spokesman Muslim Khan, was one such demand. The government has released 30 TTP prisoners after the talks and ceasefire.
Compensation for the dead and wounded, enforcement of Shariah regulation in Malakand, withdrawal of military from the borders and reversal of tribal areas merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were key demands from the TTP side, sources said.
The government had no issue with some of the TTP’s demands, but two major issues remained challenging: the reversal of tribal areas merger and the disbandment of the TTP as an armed militant group, according to sources.
The government delegates made it clear that the merger brought about through a constitutional amendment was not up for discussion and that tribal people were the main, important stakeholders.
The TTP on its part had brought documents containing the commitment made by Pakistan's founder Qaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with the tribal people guaranteeing their autonomy in an independent Pakistan. They were told that the reversal of the merger would mean return to the Frontier Crimes Regulation which was a relic of the British Empire and did not contain anything that could be considered ‘Islamic’.
Sources added that the disbandment of the TTP is another make-or-break issue.
The Pakistani government has made it clear that no armed group would be allowed to enter Pakistan territory or operate as such.
The next round of negotiations is expected to take place in the second week of June, sources said, with a tribal jirga holding direct talks with the TTP in Kabul. A 50-member jirga (council) consisting of prominent tribal elders from Pakistan’s restive region bordering Afghanistan will fly to Kabul on Wednesday for holding peace talks with the TTP, according to The Dawn.
The report of the ceasefire has come within days of a United Nations Security Council report that said TTP a persistent threat to Pakistan's security and termed chances of peace in the ongoing talks as bleak.
The report, as per The Dawn newspaper, said there were only limited chances of peace with the TTP through talks.
It added, "The report observed that as compared to other foreign militant groups, TTP was the biggest beneficiary of last year’s Taliban takeover and used this opportunity for conducting attacks and operations in Pakistan.
"The TTP also continues to exist as a stand-alone force, rather than feeling pressure to merge its fighters into Afghan Taliban units, as is the prospect for most foreign terrorist fighters."
So far this year, a total of 79 people have died in 46 TTP attacks, according to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, which have mostly been directed at Pakistan's law enforcement personnel.
(With PTI inputs)