- Associated Press - Sunday, December 11, 2011

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — 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.

The conflicting claims are a clear sign of splits within the movement, which could make it harder for Islamabad to strike a deal to end the violent insurgency gripping the country — although, possibly, easier to suppress it militarily.

The Pakistani government meanwhile said that the U.S. had vacated an air base used by American drones. Islamabad had ordered the Americans out in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes last month that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistan‘s conflict with its branch of the Taliban is closely linked to the American-led war in Afghanistan. Past informal cease-fires have made it easier for Afghan militants sheltered by their Pakistani counterparts to attack U.S. forces across the border.

Consequently, while the U.S. has pushed for peace negotiations between the Afghan branch of the Taliban and Kabul, the possibility of similar talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani branch could stoke concern in Washington.

From Islamabad’s perspective, rising anger against the Americans increases the incentive to cut a deal with the Taliban, as many blame the conflict on their government’s alliance with Washington.

However, the government’s ability to negotiate with the clandestine militant movement will be made vastly more complicated by the Taliban‘s murky command structure and the difficulty in telling whether commanders who say they are willing to make peace actually have any authority on the ground.

Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, who has been recognized by both militants and officials as the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, had said on Saturday that the group was in negotiations with the government. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 hard-line Islamist regime.

Mr. Ehsan has on several occasions over the past six months dismissed reports of peace talks by unnamed militant commanders and intelligence officials.

“Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be deemed as the Taliban talking,” Mr. Ehsan told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The group, which is closely allied with al Qaeda, has been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last 4½ years. At least 35,000 people have been killed in suicide bombings, other insurgent attacks and army offensives.

But military operations and U.S. 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.

Mr. 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 long has 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. Mr. Dadullah contacted the AP on Sunday and denied that the group, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, was negotiating with the government.

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