Negotiators representing the Pakistani government and Taliban insurgents are to meet for preliminary peace talks later on Tuesday following a spate of killings, but there is scepticism about their chances of success.
Two teams, nominated by the government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are due to gather in Islamabad at 2.00pm (09.00 GMT) to chart a “roadmap” for talks.
In a surprise move last week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif named a team to begin dialogue with the militants, who have been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.
Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan's tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year. More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.
Critics have accused Sharif's government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence and media held out scant hope for the talks.
The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country's constitution must remain paramount.
English-language daily The Nation predicted the “peace talks balloon will burst soon enough”.
“The ambiguity and confusion still exists because the political leadership has been extremely hesitant towards taking a clear stand and calling a spade a spade for a change,” it said in an editorial on Tuesday.
The News predicted the process would be “long and excruciating... since neither committee contains anyone with the authority to make decisions”.
The government team consists of senior journalists Irfan Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter Services Intelligence agency.
The Taliban side includes Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a hardline cleric known in the West as the “Father of the Taliban”, as well as the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque and two other religious party leaders.
The TTP had asked cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to be part of their team but he declined.
“This is a very preliminary meeting. We will listen to each other and will try to smooth the atmosphere for future talks,” Professor Ibrahim Khan, one of the religious party leaders on the Taliban team, told AFP.
The two sides held separate meetings in Islamabad on Monday and later decided to talk each other on Tuesday, Khan said.
“We will talk to the Taliban after meeting the government committee,” he said. “Our first priority is peace. We will try to have a ceasefire first and then will try for a permanent peace.”
Haq told AFP on Monday that the TTP had so far made no formal demands for the talks.
In the past the militants have called for their prisoners to be released and for Pakistani troops to be pulled out of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border. - Sapa-AFP