PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban announced Saturday that the militant group was in peace talks with the government and that an agreement to end its brutal four-year insurgency was within striking distance.
The statement from Malvi Faqir Mohammad, which appeared timed to exploit tensions between the Pakistan army and the United States, will likely stoke further concerns in Washington over Pakistan's reliability as a long-term partner in the fight against extremists.
It represented the first time a named Taliban commander had confirmed that the group was negotiating with the Pakistani government.
Still, it was unclear whether Mohammad spoke for the entirety of the increasingly factionalized network, especially its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Asked about the alleged negotiations, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his government had followed a policy of "dialogue, deterrence, and development" to tackle militants based in the lawless Afghan border region.
"That is a continuing process," he told a local television station.
Pakistani officials had earlier said they do not talk to militants who do not surrender.
Despite pushing for peace talks to end the related insurgency in Afghanistan, Washington is unlikely to support similar efforts to strike a deal in Pakistan. Ties between the two countries have been on a downward trend all year and were dealt a massive blow by the U.S.-led air strike in Afghanistan two weeks ago that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The attack triggered fresh anti-Americanism in the country, including within the army ranks.
American forces and their NATO and Afghan allies regularly come under attack from Afghan militants and al-Qaeda operatives who live alongside Pakistani Taliban militants in the border region.
Previous peace deals in the northwest didn't last long and gave militants time to rest and regroup, as well as space for foreign extremists to prosper.
Mohammad said his men had held "peace talks with relevant government officials."
"They are progressing well, and we may soon sign a formal peace agreement with the government," he said in a telephone conversation.
He didn't specify the terms being discussed, but past deals have essentially been nonaggression pacts: The militants get to live unmolested by the army in the border regions, which the state has long been content to leave as an ungoverned space for strategic reasons, so long as they do not attack inside Pakistan.
The army is accused of tolerating or supporting militants there who strike into Afghanistan.