Govt, Taliban agree on ‘launch pad’ for talks

* Sami says process of direct talks to start in two to three days * Chosen place will be declared ‘peace zone’ * Both sides showing flexibility and willingness for success of talks
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ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Saturday agreed to hold direct talks within a few days at a mutually agreed place, but both would not divulge the location to the media. 
The decision to this effect was announced after the four-member government committee headed by federal secretary Habibullah Khattak on Saturday held a detailed meeting with the Taliban coordination committee led by Maulana Samiul Haq, head of his own faction of the JUI. 
“The two sides (TTP and the government) have agreed upon a venue for the next phase of negotiations, which will take place soon,” Samiul Haq informed. “The process of directly contacting the Taliban will start in two to three days; both sides have agreed on the venue,” he told reporters after a two-hour meeting held at the Punjab House Islamabad, which was also attended by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
The Taliban coordination committee was represented by its chief Maulana Samiul Haq, Professor Ibrahim and Maulana Yousuf Shah, while Habibullah Khattak led the government team, which included Fawad Hasan Fawad, Rustam Shah Mohmand and Arbab Arif. 
Samiul Haq, meanwhile, said the reports regarding the Taliban having rejected talks’ venue outside Waziristan were mere speculations.
Earlier, media reports said that the TTP had proposed its stronghold of North Waziristan as the venue, while the government wanted to hold talks in Bannu. 
Sami, however, stopped short of specifying the negotiation venue. Officials say it could possibly be Bannu, KP. 
“Both sides are showing flexibility and willingness for success of the talks,” he added, saying the chosen place would be declared a “peace zone”. He, however, didn’t specify the location. Another member of the committee, Maulana Yousuf Shah, said Saturday’s meetings between the two committees were an important breakthrough. “The nation will soon hear a good news,” he asserted. 
Meanwhile, sources said the Punjab House meeting also deliberated upon the list of ‘prisoners’ in government detention, which was provided by the Taliban. The two sides also discussed the release of persons kidnapped and held hostage by the militants, the sources said.
The keenly observed peace talks between the government and Taliban are likely to be held at a venue in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while the option to hold parleys at Bannu airport is seriously being considered due to many important reasons, security sources told Daily Times on Saturday. It was reported earlier that the government in an effort to make the negotiations a success had proposed holding talks at the office of the political agent of North Waziristan, while it was rumoured that the Taliban committee demanded that talks be held somewhere in Makeen or Ladha in South Waziristan.
“Bannu airport is located in an area where the government has its writ. Secondly, the government held talks at the same venue with former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009,” a security official told this scribe on the condition of anonymity.
Giving further details about the venue of the talks, he said that the government wanted to choose a place keeping in view the possibility that the militants might not be able to overpower the government negotiating team. “To avoid all such situations, the government prefers that the talks be held in an urban area where law enforcement agencies are able to cope with any untoward situation,” said the official.
“Choosing Bannu airport for the talks is a strong option because the place is geographically contiguous to the Taliban areas. They (Taliban) will come through helicopters and go back after the talks from the airport instead of coming deep into the settled areas. This will also give confidence to the Taliban negotiators,” he maintained.  
Negotiations have so far been conducted through teams of go-betweens, which some observers say has hampered their effectiveness.
Saturday’s agreement came despite the Taliban accusations earlier in the day that security forces had fired mortal shells and conducted raids on hideouts in tribal regions.
In a statement issued to the media, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid alleged that security forces were torturing Taliban prisoners.
“These incidents are meant to force us towards war,” Shahid said. 
The government opened negotiations with the TTP last month in a bid to end their bloody seven-year insurgency.
The process broke down for more than two weeks after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers, but later resumed after the Taliban announced a month-long ceasefire.
The peace talks were a key campaign pledge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year. 

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