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Sharif condemns ‘heinous’ execution of 23 soldiers; peace talks stalled

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday condemned the “heinous” execution of kidnapped soldiers by a Taleban faction, warning that the deaths could affect ongoing peace talks.
“Such incidents have an extremely negative impact on the ongoing dialogue aimed at promoting peace,” Sharif said in a statement issued by his office.
A faction of the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) from the northwestern Mohmand district claimed on Sunday night that they had killed 23 paramilitary Frontier Corps members who were kidnapped in June 2010.
Sharif added that Pakistan “cannot afford such bloodshed” and lamented that previous attempts to start dialogue were “sabotaged whenever it reached an encouraging stage.” Government negotiators were set to sit down for fresh talks with their Taleban counterparts on Monday but they canceled the meeting after unanimously deciding it would be “purposeless.” Sharif announced talks with the Pakistani Taleban on Jan. 29 to “give peace another chance” following a seven-year insurgency that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives.
Pakistan watchers have always been skeptical that negotiations with the outlawed militant group could ever bring peace in a country where the Taleban are fighting to topple the government and set up an Islamic state.
“It is sad that we are not moving in the right direction,” Irfan Siddiqui, a government negotiator, said in a statement, adding that there was now “no use” holding a meeting with Taleban representatives planned for Monday.
The Taleban wing operating in the tribal Mohmand agency said in a statement the Pakistani soldiers, who were kidnapped in 2010, had been executed in revenge for the killing of their fighters by army forces.
It also issued a video message in Pashto explaining its motives but the footage did not show the bodies.
The Pakistani Taleban’s main spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, could not immediately say if Mohmand Taleban actions had been endorsed by the movement’s central command or indeed when or whether the negotiations would resume.
In a sign the central Taleban leadership was not in control of its fringe groups, a cleric representing the insurgents in the talks distanced himself from the Mohmand attack.
“We are also sad to hear the news of the Mohmand agency incident,” Maulana Yousuf Shah said in remarks broadcast on Pakistani television.
The Pakistani Taleban, who operate separately from their Afghan namesakes, are deeply divided, so striking a deal with the central leadership is unlikely to result in peace.
Many in Pakistan believe the government is setting itself for failure by trying to talk to a group which has killed about 40,000 people since the birth of the insurgency in 2007.
Overshadowed by persistent violence, talks faltered shortly after starting on Feb. 6, with more than 100 people dying in insurgent violence across the country since then.
The Taleban however have so far claimed responsibility only for one attack, the one on Thursday when 13 policemen were killed in a bomb explosion.
A failure to reach a negotiated cease-fire would also raise the specter of a major military offensive in North Waziristan, a region where many Al-Qaeda-linked militants are based.
But it is also bound to unnerve ordinary people in Pakistan tired after years of violence in a region already nervous ahead of a planned foreign troops withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan this year.
In a possible sign of the changing mood, Imran Khan, who has been an outspoken proponent of the talks, said in a statement: “Clearly this is also a direct sabotage of the peace talks in the most barbaric way possible.”

Polio team kidnapped
In Peshawar, masked gunmen kidnapped a six-member polio vaccination team — a doctor, two local employees of the World Health Organization (WHO) and three guards — in northwest Pakistan on Monday, an official said.
Local administration official Niamat Ullah Khan said the team was seized some 300 km southwest of Peshawar, in Ping village at the border of South Waziristan.
A local official of the WHO in Peshawar confirmed the incident.
The kidnapping is the latest setback to efforts to eradicate the disease in Pakistan, and followed a bombing on Sunday targeting a polio team in Peshawar which killed a policeman.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where the crippling virus is still endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Peshawar is considered “the largest polio virus reservoir of the world” by the WHO.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping so far. But militant groups see vaccination campaigns as a cover for espionage, and there are also long-running rumors about polio drops causing infertility.