Pakistani tribesmen push Taliban to talk peace

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Five years after setting up an umbrella organization to unite violent militant groups in the nation's tribal regions, the Pakistani Taliban is fractured, strapped for cash and losing support of local tribesmen who are frustrated by a protracted war that has forced thousands from their homes, analysts and residents say.

Hakimullah Mehsud, the temperamental chief of the group known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, recently offered to start peace talks with the government, raising the prospect of a negotiated end to Pakistan's war against insurgents in a lawless region that runs the length of the border with Afghanistan.

The group's offer of sanctuary to Afghanistan's Taliban has been one of the most divisive issues in U.S.-Pakistan relations and has confounded efforts to get the upper hand against Afghan insurgents after more than 11 years of war.

Pakistan denies providing outright military and financial help to militants fighting in Afghanistan. With 120,000 Pakistani soldiers deployed in the tribal regions, Pakistan has waged its own bloody battle against insurgents that has left more than 4,000 of its soldiers dead.

In interviews with analysts, residents and militant experts, Mr. Mehsud's network has emerged as a narrow collection of insurgents -- often with links to criminal gangs -- that has only limited influence in a vast tribal region overrun by scores of insurgent groups led by commanders with disparate agendas and varying loyalties.

Rather than a precursor to peace, Mr. Mehsud's offer to talk peace is an attempt to regain stature, silence critics and gain concessions from a weak government heading into nationwide elections, according to those familiar with the militant organization.

"The Taliban's offer for peace talks is more of a ploy to gain legitimacy and a public relations tactic than a sincere move to end violence," militant expert and author Zahid Hussain wrote in a local newspaper this week.

He called the video a "grotesque joke" and criticized government willingness to talk with Mr. Mehsud's Taliban.

Two dozen political parties, including the ruling Pakistan People's Party, agreed in a daylong meeting Thursday to pursue talks with the Taliban, including the secular-leaning Awami National Party that rules the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province where the tribal regions are located.

"We have to try to find peace. It is not a question of giving them legitimacy. Their forces are there, and when they come to the negotiation table, they are recognizing the writ of the government," provincial information minister Iftikar Hussain, whose son was killed by Taliban insurgents, said in an interview Wednesday.

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