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Pakistan is closer to Taliban deal

Pakistan has said it is ready to hold peace talks with the domestic Taliban who have killed thousands of people in the country.

Interior minister Rehman Malik's comments were the latest sign of growing momentum for talks and followed statements by senior Pakistani Taliban leaders who also indicate they are ready to negotiate.

The government appeared to have dropped an earlier demand that the Taliban lay down their weapons and renounce violence prior to talks, a position rejected by the militants. "We are ready to start talks with you," Mr Malik said, adding that bullets are "not the answer. You tell us what team you would like to talk to, and let's set an agenda."

Ruling party politicians say one key issue driving the government toward talks - which have the blessing of the country's powerful military - is concern about violence in the run-up to parliamentary elections expected this spring.

The Pakistani military has waged an aggressive campaign against the Taliban in their north-west sanctuaries along the Afghan border since 2009, but the militants have proved resilient. There has been a rise in violence in recent months as the Taliban have carried out a series of high-profile attacks, including two against Pakistani air force bases.

It is less clear what is motivating the Taliban to push for negotiations. The militants have publicly spurned government offers of talks in the past and deny reports that the group has held secret discussions with officials.

It is also uncertain how much common ground the two sides would find if they met face-to-face. The Taliban have demanded that Pakistan sever ties with the United States and impose Islamic law in the country.

Even if an agreement is reached, it is unclear if it would last, especially given divisions among the militants themselves. The government has cut peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban in the past, but they have largely fallen apart. The agreements have been criticised for allowing the militants to regroup and rebuild their strength to resume fighting.

Talk of a new peace deal could be troubling to the United States if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. However, Washington's push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could also make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border.

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