Taliban insurgents (Photo: Reuters)
Taliban insurgents have set tough terms for peace talks with the Pakistani government, demanding the release of all imprisoned fighters and the withdrawal of troops from the tribal areas, officials said Monday.
The militants outlined their demands to a team of Islamist clerics who are holding talks with the government on the Taliban's behalf about ending a seven-year insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
Negotiating teams held a first meeting on Thursday, but the dozen conditions now laid down by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will further fuel doubts about chances of success.
A TTP commander told AFP the prisoner and troops issues were a "test case" for the government to prove its sincerity.
"This is the first round of talks. The committee members will now meet the government committee and will forward our demands, they will meet us again with a reply," the commander said.
The three-member team representing the TTP has returned to Islamabad after meeting the insurgents' 10-member council at their headquarters in the mountainous tribal district of North Waziristan over the weekend.
Pakistan's military entered the tribal areas in 2003 after the US invasion in 2001 of Afghanistan, launching operations against homegrown militants and foreign fighters.
The withdrawal of troops and release of prisoners are longstanding demands of the TTP.
The Taliban said they wanted security in the tribal areas taken out of the hands of the army and given to local security and administrative officials, a move which would strengthen the militants' control.
The commander added that all of the Taliban's estimated 4,000 prisoners including those awaiting execution must be freed.
The negotiating team was led by Professor Ibrahim Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious political party and also included clerics Yousuf Shah and Maulana Abdul Haseeb.
The Taliban's other demands included nationwide implementation of a strict form of Islamic sharia law and Islamic-based education at all levels, an end to Pakistan's military support for the United States and a halt to drone strikes, and an end to interest-based banking.
Talks between the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Taliban began last week.
But there has been widespread scepticism about the chances of ending the TTP's bloody insurgency, particularly since regional deals have quickly broken down in the past.