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Maulana Sami ul-Haq, one of the Taliban negotiators, and government negotiator Irfan Siddiqui (L) smile before a news conference in Islamabad February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

Pakistan, Taliban start peace talks in Islamabad

A long-awaited first round of peace talks between Pakistani Taliban insurgents and the government began in Islamabad on Thursday after persistent delays and growing doubt over the chance of their success.

The insurgents have been battling to topple Pakistan’s government and establish strict Islamic rule since 2007, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif believes both sides are now ready to find a negotiated settlement and stop fighting.

In a statement after the meeting, which lasted over three hours, the two sides stressed their commitment to dialogue.

“Both committees concluded that all sides should refrain from any act that could damage the talks,” it said. “Both condemn recent acts of violence in Pakistan, saying such efforts should not sabotage the talks.”

Irfan Siddiqui, a government negotiator picked by Sharif, sent a text message from the meeting in an Islamabad government building, describing the atmosphere as “cordial and friendly”.

Several earlier efforts at striking peace deals with the militants failed to end the violence for long, only allowing them to regroup, recruit new fighters and strike back with renewed vengeance.

Pakistan’s neighbors are watching closely, acutely aware that another failure to find a peaceful solution could further destabilize the region already nervous ahead of the expected pull-out of most foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan.

Thursday’s meeting in Islamabad was a preliminary round where the two sides were expected to agree on a broad roadmap for future contacts.

But many in Pakistan doubt that talking to an insurgent group that stages almost daily attacks will succeed.

As the sides prepared for talks this week, a suicide bomber killed eight people near a Shi’ite Muslim mosque in the city of Peshawar. The Taliban have tried to distance themselves from the attack but the bombing reinforced doubts about the talks.

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