PESHAWAR/LAHORE - Said Alam Khan and Sajid Zia - The Taliban in Pakistan have split on the question of peace talks with the government with central command of the umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) declaring that it has removed the head of its Punjab chapter who welcomed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s dialogue offer.

TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told a foreign news agency on Saturday that TTP Shura led by Hakimullah Mehsud has sacked TTP Punjab chief Ismatullah Muavia. But Muavia rejected the TTP decision saying that the Punjabi Taliban were independent and the TTP had no authority to remove him.

PM Nawaz Sharif had offer conditional peace talks to Taliban on Monday in his first televised address to the nation since taking office after winning elections in May. Muavia had welcomed PM’s offer and praised him by saying that he had shown maturity by offering dialogue.

The TTP spokesman said Muavia was not authorised to comment on the government offer therefore he has been expelled from the organisation the TTP Shura which met under Commander Hakimullah Mehsud. He also said they would come up with their response to the talks offer latter but made it clear that they would never accept the pre-condition of laying down arms.

Federal Information Minister Pervez Rasheed told The Nation on Saturday the government has not shunned the option of talks with Taliban. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar also ‘clarified’ that there was no precondition for the Taliban to lay down arms before dialogue could be held. “If conditions are set by both sides up front, dialogue will not take place,” he said in an interview with a private TV channel, showing a major shift in government stance.

TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in his statement, “We respect Asmatullah Muavia but he is not linked to the TTP (anymore)... He has been removed from the leadership of Punjabi Taliban through a decision taken by the central Shura. He said that Muavia has no relation with the TTP and Shura has directed all the militants not to contact the expelled commander. He said the decision about new head of TTP’s Punjab chapter will be taken in the next meeting.

But Muavia outrightly rejected his dismissal and claimed independent existence of the militant organisation he leads. “The TTP has no authority to sack me from my position as the head of the Punjabi Taliban... We have our own Shura,” he said in a statement.

In response to Nawaz Sharif’s remarks, Muavia had earlier said that negotiations between the government and the militants would strengthen peace efforts. Muavia’s response had surprised many because the Taliban had earlier withdrawn their offer for talks after one of their main commanders was killed in a US drone strike in the Waziristan.

The TTP spokesman said they were considering the government’s offer of peace talks but they would never lay down the arms — a precondition the government had so far been setting for its talks offers. “We will decide on talks after seeing the government’s attitude,” he said. “But one thing that should be clear in everybody’s mind is that the Taliban will never lay down their arms. Expecting such a thing is nothing but fantasy.”

Federal Information Minister Pervez Rasheed told The Nation on Saturday the government wants to give peace a chance, but wishes the process may not get influenced by recent statement of TTP spokesperson who construed PM’s warning of use of state force as ‘open war’. He said the government would frame its security policy as per its needs.

He said in “our view we must listen to the ‘concerns’ of those groups who have created the situation and also put across our concerns that how the situation was affecting our country, and persuade them to a point where this killing and carnage stops”. Rasheed added, “We want to sit with and talk to those groups; we would follow what would best serve the country.”

On the other hand, Interior Minister Nisar, when pointed out the toughening of position by the Taliban, said there were speculation about the outcome but added that negative things should not be highlighted. He said patience was required for dialogue, adding that thousands have lost their lives due to terrorism. “There has been widespread destruction during the last 13 years. Losses have been incurred on both sides,” Nisar said.