DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — A senior Pakistani Taliban commander welcomed the government's recent offer to hold peace talks, raising the possibility the militant group has changed its stance after shunning negotiations earlier this year.
Asmatullah Muawiya, head of the Taliban's faction of fighters from central Punjab province, said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif "demonstrated political maturity" by reiterating his offer to hold peace talks in a speech on Monday.
"If the present government takes an interest in solving matters seriously and with prudence, then there is no reason why jihadi forces active in Pakistan shouldn't respond to it positively," Muawiya said in a statement sent to journalists Thursday.
The main Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said Muawiya was expressing his own opinion but was closely tied to the group's leadership. Shahid said the leaders had not yet made a decision about whether to re-engage on peace talks. The leadership will hold a meeting Friday to discuss Sharif's offer, but will never agree to lay down their arms, said Shahid.
Muawiya was the first person to indicate at the end of last year that the Pakistani Taliban were open to holding peace talks. He sent a letter to a local newspaper outlining conditions for a cease-fire, including the imposition of Islamic law and an end to the government's unpopular alliance with the U.S.
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud then released a video in which he said the group would consider a serious offer to talk but would not lay down their weapons as a precondition.
Prime Minister Sharif, who took office in June, campaigned on a platform that indicated peace talks with the Taliban were the best way to end the group's bloody insurgency, which has killed thousands of people in recent years.
But the Taliban withdrew their offer to negotiate at the end of May after the group's deputy commander was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Muawiya praised the government's decision Sunday to halt all state executions temporarily, just days ahead of the planned hangings of several al-Qaida-linked militants. He threatened in an interview with The Associated Press last week that the Taliban would target the leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N if the militants were hanged.
The prime minister "strengthened the wish of peace by suspending punishment for prisoners," Muawiya said.
The previous government had put in place a moratorium on executions. The current government initially indicated it would end that moratorium, but said Sunday that executions were halted until Sharif held talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
The idea of peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart. The agreements have been criticized for allowing the militants to regroup and rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.
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