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Nearly two dozen killed in attacks across Pakistan despite talks

By Jibran Ahmed and Gul Yousafzai

PESHAWSAR/QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Attacks in the volatile Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta killed a total of 19 people on Friday, frustrating hopes of a lasting peace deal with insurgents fighting to topple the government.

In Peshawar, a sprawling city on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a police vehicle, killing at least nine bystanders including a woman and a child, police said.

In Quetta, in the unruly province of Baluchistan, at least 10 people were killed when a motorcycle laden with explosives exploded near a college in the city center, police said.

The attacks took place as the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to revive a stalled peace process with the Pakistani Taliban militants in order to hammer out a permanent ceasefire agreement and end years of violence.

But a series of attacks and counter-attacks by insurgents and government forces since the start of the year has dampened expectations that peace talks could ever yield any result.

In Peshawar, police chief Faisal Kamran said the target of the attack was an armored personnel carrier.

"The police were deployed in the armored personnel carrier to provide security during Friday prayers outside mosques when it came under attack," he said. "The policemen luckily remained safe but innocent people were killed and injured."

Jamil Shah, a spokesman for the city's biggest hospital, said at least 30 were injured.

"LIBERATORS OF INDIA"

In Quetta, at least 10 people were killed and 35 wounded when the motorcycle exploded near the college, police said.

An increasingly active Taliban splinter group, Ahrar-ul-Hind, or "Liberators of India" - a name referring to the whole of the subcontinent - claimed responsibility for the attacks.

"We claim both Peshawar and Quetta attacks," their chief, Umar Qasmi, told Reuters. "We don't abide by these talks and will continue to stage attacks."

The Pakistani Taliban, who are separate from the Afghan Taliban, is a fragmented and deeply divided movement of dozens of small groups which do not always agree with each other.

The leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is keen on the talks, immediately distanced itself from the Friday attacks.

"The TTP strongly condemns the Peshawar and Quetta blasts," said TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid. "We have no connection to these attacks because we are observing a ceasefire."

The TTP's position has spurred speculation that the central command is not fully in control of the many splinter groups operating under it, and reaching a peace deal with one of them would not stop the violence.

Ahrar-ul-Hind, which splintered from the Pakistani Taliban just a month ago, had previously claimed responsibility for an attack in central Islamabad earlier this month when suicide bombers and gunmen killed 11 people in a court.

Pakistani investigators believe that Qasmi, the leader of the group, is capable of drawing support from other militant outfits, including several linked to al Qaeda that have wreaked bloody havoc in the country over the last decade.

On Friday, members of a Taliban-nominated negotiating team seeking to revive the stalled peace process traveled to the tribal areas in an attempt to bring their leaders to the negotiating table.

"Our meeting with the Taliban shura (council) was ‎very positive," Mohammad Ibrahim, one of the committee members, told Reuters. "They agreed to meet with the government committee and present their demands before them."

(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer and Saud Mehsud; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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