Afghanistan's ruling Taliban confirmed Wednesday they hosted fresh peace negotiations between Pakistan and fugitive leaders of an outlawed militant group waging cross-border terrorist attacks against Pakistani forces out of Afghan sanctuaries.
Highly-placed sources told VOA a top Pakistani army commander, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, led his team in this week's meeting with representatives of the extremist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, in the Afghan capital, Kabul. The two-day discussions were held in secrecy. Pakistani officials have not publicly commented on the talks but TTP has confirmed them.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman for the host government, while sharing a few details of the talks for the first time Wednesday, said they were mediating the dialogue process.
The negotiating teams have agreed to temporarily cease hostilities to move the talks forward, Mujahid wrote on Twitter. He said without elaborating that "significant progress on related issues" was also made.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in good faith to promote peace, strives for the negotiating process to succeed and expects both sides to be tolerant and flexible," stressed Mujahid, using the self-styled name of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The TTP issued a statement to media Wednesday, saying the "negotiations are underway" with the mediation of the Kabul rulers. A 10-day truce previously agreed to for the Muslim festival of Eid has been extended until May 30, said the militant statement.
Militant and security sources close to the talks said they had resulted in the freeing of dozens of TTP prisoners from Pakistani jails. The men included two key commanders, namely Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan.
The prisoners were released to their families and they had either served out their sentences or gone through government-run de-radicalization centers in Pakistan.
Security sources stressed that there would be no "blanket amnesty" for "hardcore" militants and they would have to face the legal process if the peace process eventually encourages them to return from Afghanistan and resume a normal life.
TTP attacks have spiked in Pakistan since last August when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The violence has killed scores of Pakistani security forces, straining Islamabad's relations with Kabul.
Pakistan has been urging the Taliban to meet their pledges to the outside world that they would not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries by terrorist groups, including the TTP.
The United States also lists the Pakistani Taliban as a terrorist organization.
Last month, Taliban officials said Pakistani airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan killed dozens of people, fueling mutual tensions. Kabul lodged a diplomatic protest over what it denounced as a "cruelty" and warned of a retaliation to any such actions in future. It did not elaborate.
Islamabad did not comment on the strikes and in turn urged Kabul to strengthen border security on its side to deter deadly militant attacks against Pakistan.
The Afghan Taliban late last year also hosted talks between the TTP and Pakistan, leading to a monthlong cease-fire. But the militant group refused to extend that truce, alleging Pakistani authorities were refusing to free dozens of TTP prisoners in violation of the deal.
Critics say the Afghan Taliban are reluctant to forcefully evict the TTP from their country because both share the same ideology and maintain close ties.
For years, the TTP sheltered the Afghan Taliban on the Pakistani side and provided them with recruits to wage insurgent attacks against the now-defunct Western-backed Kabul government and its U.S.-led foreign military partners.
Pakistani officials have long maintained that any discussions with the TTP would be held for the militants to "surrender to Pakistan's constitution and lay down their arms." These "red lines" would have to be respected for advancing any peace effort, the officials insisted.
The TTP demands the Pakistani government withdraw troops from northwestern districts on the Afghan border that once served as strongholds for local and foreign militants, including the Afghan Taliban.
The militant group also wants restoration of the traditional semiautonomous status of the districts in question and calls for implementing an Islamic system in Pakistan in accordance with the TTP's own interpretation of Islam. But Islamabad rejects as unacceptable those demands, ruling out any talks on the constitution and the status of the troops or the border districts.
Source: Voice of America