Peace talks between the Pakistani government and Taliban fighters broke down Monday, after the fighters said they executed 23 soldiers in revenge for army operations in the volatile tribal regions on the Afghan border.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday condemned the killings, calling them a "heinous" act. "Pakistan cannot afford such bloodshed,” Sharif said. “The situation is very sad, and the whole nation is shocked."
Sharif announced the latest round of talks last month amid mounting speculation that the army was preparing to launch a major ground and air offensive against hard-liner strongholds on its western frontier.
"It is sad that we are not moving in the right direction," Irfan Siddiqui, a government negotiator, said in a news release, adding that there was now "no use" holding a meeting with Taliban representatives planned for Monday.
The Taliban wing operating in the tribal Mohmand district in Pakistan's north issued a statement saying the Pakistani soldiers, who were kidnapped in 2010, had been executed in revenge for the army killing their fighters. It also issued a video message in the Pashto language explaining its motives, but the footage did not show the bodies.
The Pakistani Taliban's main spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, could not immediately say if Mohmand Taliban actions had been endorsed by the movement's central command, or when the negotiations would resume.
Pakistan-watchers have been skeptical that negotiations could deliver peace in a country where the armed group, known there as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, is fighting to topple the government and set up an Islamic state. The Taliban's Afghan wing, which operates separately from Pakistan's, has similar objectives, and has in recent years been charged by the United Nations with a number of civilian casualties.
In a sign the central Taliban leadership was not in control of its fringe groups, a cleric representing the insurgents in the talks distanced himself from the Mohmand attack.
"We are also sad to hear the news of the Mohmand agency incident," Maulana Yousuf Shah said in remarks broadcast on Pakistani television.
The Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan namesakes are deeply divided, so striking a deal with the central leadership is unlikely to result in peace.
Many in Pakistan believe the government is setting itself up for failure by trying to talk to a group that has killed about 40,000 people since the birth of the insurgency in 2007. Overshadowed by persistent violence, talks faltered shortly after starting on Feb. 6, with more than 100 people dying in insurgent violence across the country since then.
A failure to reach a negotiated ceasefire would raise the specter of a major military offensive in North Waziristan, home to many Al-Qaeda-linked militants. Failed talks are also bound to unnerve ordinary people in Pakistan, who are weary after years of violence in a region already that is also nervous ahead of a planned withdrawal of foreign troops from neighboring Afghanistan this year.
The army publicly supports Sharif's call for talks, but in private senior officers speak strongly against it, giving rise to talk that the military is waiting for an excuse to go into action.
In a possible sign of the changing mood, Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician who has been an outspoken proponent of the talks, said in a news release, "Clearly this is also a direct sabotage of the peace talks in the most barbaric way possible."
Al Jazeera and wire services