ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban said Wednesday they will not renew a ceasefire they called over a month ago to facilitate peace negotiations but said they will still continue talks with the government.
The surprising announcement, which comes just days after the country's interior minister said comprehensive talks with the militants would start this week, throws into doubt the future of a peace process pushed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as the best way to end years of fighting in the northwest that has killed thousands of people.
In a statement emailed to reporters, the group's spokesman Shahidullah Shahid blamed the government, saying it had continued operations against the group even during the ceasefire.
"Therefore, the central shura of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has unanimously decided not to make any extension in the cease-fire," he said, referring to the militant group by its formal name. "However, the process of talks will continue with complete sincerity and seriousness."
The statement made no mention of whether the group would immediately resume attacks, and it was not clear whether this signaled a definite change in position or was designed as a pressure tactic.
The militant group has been trying to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish its hard-line form of Islam across the country for years in a bloody campaign of bombings and shootings.
The prime minister came to power last year vowing to end the violence through negotiations instead of military operations. The militant group announced a one-month ceasefire on March 1 and then extended it for another 10 days. This is the group's first comment on the ceasefire since it expired last Thursday. According to a report from the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, the number of terrorist attacks fell in Khyber Paktunkhwa province and in the tribal regions during March — both areas that have been sites of numerous militant attacks.
The two sides held one round of direct talks on March 26, and on Sunday, Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan struck an upbeat note, saying that "comprehensive" talks with the militant group were expected to start in days. He said the government was releasing about 30 prisoners requested by the Pakistani Taliban to facilitate the process.
But the announcement Wednesday undercut the government's position and left even supporters of the militants scrambling to understand what it means.
"This is an alarming statement," said Prof. Mohammed Ibrahim, who previously acted as an intermediary for the militant group. "But my effort will be to defuse the situation and get the ceasefire extended."
Critics of the negotiations have questioned whether the militant group was sincere in its negotiations, saying it had used previous talks to reinforce its position only to fight another day.
Imtiaz Gul, who heads the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies, said the militants have become frustrated because the government has had little to offer them. The government has insisted that the talks can only proceed through the framework of the constitution which the militants do not recognize, leaving little room for the government to compromise, said Gul.
"We may not immediately see violence but we should be ready," he said.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.