PESHAWAR/ ISLAMABAD  - Much-awaited direct talks between government and Taliban representatives were held on Wednesday, and the two sides agreed to extend the ceasefire and release of non-combatant detainees.

A five-member government delegation travelled by helicopter to a secret location in North Waziristan Agency, where Taliban have strongholds. They met face-to-face five senior members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) shura, officials said.

Two rounds of talks were held in Wednesday’s meeting. The first session started at around 11:30am and ended at 2pm, the second began at3pm and concluded after 5pm. Both sides also discussed in detail a timeframe for more substantive negotiations, exchange of non-combatant prisoners and other confidence building measures (CBMs).

Since initiating peace process in February last it was the first direct encounter of government with the Taliban that comes five weeks after preliminary contacts were suspended over continued violence. The earlier rounds of talks, first announced in September, were conducted by two proxy teams.

It has been learnt that during the meeting TTP shura inquired about the authority of the government committee. The committee members spoke to Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan over the phone, and then assured that they enjoyed full authority. On this occasion, the TTP shura assured the government committee that the ceasefire would remain in place throughout the dialogue process.

The government committee headed by Ports and Shipping Secretary Habibullah Khan Khattak includes Fata Additional Chief Secretary Arbab Arif, Additional Secretary at Prime Minister Office Fawad Hassan Fawad and former ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand. At the talks they were also joined by newly-inducted Maj (r) Amir, who was also part of the previous government peace committee. The TTP shura was represented by Azam Tariq, Qari Shakeel, Maulvi Bashir and Maulvi Zakir. The Taliban named committee members – Samiul Haq, JI KP Amir Prof Ibrahim and Yousuf Shah – also accompanied the government team members for participating in the talks. According to a news channel, the governmental team was also accompanied by an intelligence agency official, however, the person’s name was not disclosed.

The TTP shura reportedly demanded release of their non-combatant prisoners from the custody of government forces, and asked for open movement of Taliban activists in their areas. The government demand permanent ceasefire and the Taliban agreed to extend it as long as the talks keep going on. The TTP shura reportedly also agreed to help find the anti-dialogue militant groups involved in violent attacks in the country.

Both the sides after the marathon meeting, which lasted for about seven hours in two sessions, termed it positive and productive, and helped allay the yawning mistrust between the two sides. The TTP nominated team members termed the interaction positive and said that it has at least removed the mistrust between the two sides to a great extent.

In a statement, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said that the Wednesday’s meeting was held in a ‘pleasant atmosphere’. He said that an agreement has been reached on release of non-combatant detainees and extension in ceasefire. He, however, called upon the government for weekly suspension of troop patrols in North Waziristan to allow Taliban move freely in the agency.

Soon after returning to Peshawar, Samiul Haq termed the first direct talks a great success. “The ice has melted. Both the sides sat together. They attentively listened to each other and gave positive signals for the success of the talks,” he told a news conference. He confirmed TTP senior leadership attended the meeting which continued for approximately 7 hours. He said the Taliban committee was quiet hopeful about the success of the dialogue process and next round of direct talks would be held in a day or two.

Prof Ibrahim, another member of Sami-led team, said soon the nation will hear good news, urging the people to pray for the success of talks. “The war and lawlessness that continued for more than ten years have made the life of the people miserable. Peace would return. Efforts would bear fruit,” he enthused.

Though Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan remained in touch with the government team and also had chat with Samiul Haq during their talks with the Taliban, a formal meeting of the government committee is called today (Thursday) to let him know the details of the meeting and discuss the demands of the TTP.