ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's presumptive prime minister called for peace talks with Taliban militants at war with the government Monday, potentially charting a course that could put him at odds with the country's powerful army.
Nawaz Sharif said "terrorism" was one of the most serious problems plaguing the country and any offer by the Pakistani Taliban to talk "should be taken seriously."
"All options should be tried, and guns are not a solution to all problems," Sharif said in a speech to newly elected members of his party in the eastern city of Lahore. "Why shouldn't we sit and talk, engage in dialogue?"
The Pakistani Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years that has killed thousands of people. The militants say they are fighting to enforce Islamic law in the country and end the government's alliance with the United States.
The Pakistani army has launched multiple operations against the Taliban in their strongholds along the border with Afghanistan, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out near-daily attacks.
Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who met with Sharif on Saturday for the first time since the May 11 election, laid out strict conditions last month for any potential peace deal with the Taliban.
"We sincerely desire that all those who have strayed and have picked up arms against the nation return to the national fold," Kayani said in a rare public speech. "However, this is only possible once they unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law."
It's unclear whether Sharif's concept of peace fits within this framework. Activists have raised concerns that Sharif's government could accept militant demands that would threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.
The Pakistani government has previously struck peace deals with the Taliban, but they haven't held and have been criticized for allowing the militants to regroup.
Sharif has called for peace talks in the past, but Monday's speech was the first time he has done so publicly since his Pakistan Muslim League-N party scored a resounding victory in the election.
The Taliban have shown an inclination to negotiate with Sharif, who is known to be a devout Muslim and whose party has been criticized for not cracking down on Islamic militants in its stronghold of Punjab province.
Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told The Associated Press last week that the group would consider declaring a cease-fire if Sharif seemed serious about holding peace talks.
The Taliban carried out a spate of attacks against candidates and workers from secular parties in the run-up to the election. The violence raised concerns that the group was trying to influence the outcome of the election by making campaigning easier for candidates like Sharif who are perceived to take a softer line toward the militants.