PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — The Pakistani Taliban announced Saturday that the group will observe a one-month cease-fire as part of efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the government, throwing new life into a foundering peace process.
The leader of the government's negotiating team, Irfan Sadiqui, praised the cease-fire announcement while speaking on Pakistan's Geo Television, saying the government will review any written document from the Taliban about it.
"Today, we are seeing a big breakthrough," Sadiqui said. In recent weeks, Pakistani jets and helicopters have been striking militant hideouts in the northwest, after previous efforts at negotiations broke down when a militant faction announced it had killed 23 Pakistani troops.
The Pakistani Taliban has been trying to overthrow the government and establish its own hard-line form of Islam across Pakistan for years. Tens of thousands of people have died in militant attacks. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long promoted negotiations over military operations as a way to end the ongoing crisis. His efforts gained speed this year when both sides announced negotiating teams held initial meetings. But negotiations fell apart after the deaths of the 23 Pakistani troops, and Sharif has been under pressure to retaliate for any Taliban violence.
Critics of the peace process say militants have used previous negotiations to simply regroup. They also question whether there is room to negotiate with militants who don't recognize the Pakistani constitution. The militants in the past have also called for the removal of all military forces in the tribal areas as well as an end to American drone strikes.
As the military has been hammering militant hideouts, many in Pakistan have been watching closely to see whether the government would order a large-scale ground operation in the North Waziristan tribal region that is considered the militants' stronghold. Such an operation could spark a backlash of attacks in other parts of the country.
But a temporary cease-fire could be difficult to ensure. Some analysts point out that the Pakistani Taliban is not a unified organization, and some of the factions are not believed to support peace talks.
Violence earlier Saturday showed how difficult it could be to enforce a cease-fire, let alone forge a peace agreement. Two bombs exploded minutes apart in northwest Pakistan, striking tribal police assigned to guard polio workers and killing 11, police said.
Police official Nawabzada Khan said the first of the two bombs struck an escort vehicle in the Lashora village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It wounded six officers, but caused no deaths, he said. Minutes later, another roadside bomb struck a convoy of tribal police officers dispatched there to transport victims of the first attack, killing 11 officers and wounding six, Khan said. A government administrator, Nasir Khan, confirmed the death toll and said they had launched a massive hunt to arrest the attackers.
No one claimed responsibility for the two separate bombings, but anti-polio teams and their guards have been frequently targeted in Pakistan by Islamic militants. They say the campaigns are a tool for spying and claim the vaccine makes boys sterile.
Pakistan is one of the few remaining countries where polio persists. In most cases the disease is found in the northwest, where militants make it difficult to reach children for vaccination. Also Saturday, a bomb targeting security forces in the southwestern province of Baluchistan killed three soldiers and wounded six, the paramilitary Frontier Corps said.
In a statement, it said the soldiers were traveling through the border village of Washuk when a bomb hit their vehicle. Washuk lies 400 kilometers (240 miles) south of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, where separatists have been fighting a bloody insurgency against the Pakistani government for decades.
In another part of Baluchistan, security forces freed eleven foreigners, including eight Iranian nationals, who had been abducted and held in the town of Turbat, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the Iranian border, said Abdullah Khoso, the assistant commissioner of the town. He said officials were trying to determine whether five Iranian border guards abducted earlier were among the freed men. He did not give any information about the captors.
The issue of the abducted border guards has heightened tensions between Pakistan and Iran. An Iranian minister on Feb. 17 said his country might send in troops to recover the guards, prompting a sharp rebuke from Pakistan.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.