A Pakistani Taliban spokesman on Sunday denied an earlier announcement by the militant group’s deputy chief that it was holding peace talks with the government in Islamabad.
The conflicting claims are a clear sign of splits within the movement, which could make it even harder to end the violent insurgency gripping the country.
The US has pushed for peace negotiations between the Afghan branch of the Taliban and Kabul, but the possibility of similar talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani branch could stoke concern in Washington.
Past deals between the Pakistani Taliban and the government have broken down and given the militants time to strengthen their fight inside the country and against the US forces in turbulent neighbour Afghanistan.
Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, who has been recognized by both militants and the officials as the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, had said on Saturday that the group was in negotiations with the Pakistani government.
Mohammed, the first named commander to confirm talks, said an agreement to end the country’s brutal four-year insurgency was within striking distance.
Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan denied Mohammed’s claims, saying there would be no negotiations until the government imposed Islamic law, or Shariah, in the country.
The group says it wants to install a hardline Islamist regime in the nation.
Ehsan has on several occasions over the past six months dismissed reports of peace negotiations by unnamed militant commanders and intelligence officials.
“Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be deemed as the Taliban talking,” Ehsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The group, which is closely allied with the militant group al-Qaida, has been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last four and a half years.
More than 35,000 people have been killed in attacks like suicide bombings and various other insurgent attacks and army offensives in the region.
But military operations and US drone strikes have weakened the Pakistani Taliban, which has splintered into more than 100 smaller factions, according to security officials, analysts and tribesmen from the insurgent heartland.
The result is that the authority of individual commanders in the movement to control fighters and territory, already murky because of the Taliban’s clandestine nature, is now even more unclear.
Taliban deputy commander Mohammed’s main area of strength has been the Bajur tribal area along the Afghan border, but he reportedly fled to Afghanistan in recent years to escape army operations.
He has long been identified as head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur and said a deal with the government there could be a “role model” for the rest of the border region.
But another commander, Mullah Dadullah, also now claims to be Taliban chief in Bajur. Dadullah contacted the AP on Sunday and denied the group, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, was negotiating with the government.
“As TTP chief responsible for Bajur, I am categorically saying there are no talks going on between the government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban at the Bajur level or the central level,” Dadullah said, also speaking from an undisclosed location in Pakistan.
Ehsan, the spokesman, said Dadullah rather than Mohammed was the head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur.