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By Zulfiqar Ali and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Pakistani government’s improbable bid to negotiate a truce with Islamist insurgents verged on collapse Monday after reports that militants had executed 23 paramilitary soldiers held captive since 2010.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the “heinous, criminal act” and government negotiators canceled scheduled talks with Islamist representatives.

A militant group operating in the Mohmand tribal area, in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, issued a statement late Sunday claiming responsibility for the killings of the Frontier Corps paramilitary soldiers, believed to have been captured in an attack on a checkpoint in 2010. The militant group, which operates under the umbrella of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban, said the soldiers were executed in retaliation for the deaths of the group’s supporters in military custody.

The militants, under the command of a leader named Umar Khalid Khurasani, who had staunchly opposed the peace initiative, said they would release a video confirming the killings of the soldiers. Security officials in Islamabad, the capital, said they were treating the claim as genuine, although they would not confirm the number of soldiers that might have been killed.

Sharif, who launched the peace bid earlier this month amid deeply mixed feelings among Pakistanis, stopped short of saying the talks had collapsed. In a statement, he commended the “sacrifices rendered by the martyrs” and said only that the reported killings in Mohmand, along with a spate of other recent attacks blamed on militant factions, were having a negative effect on the talks.

Government and Taliban negotiators were due to meet Monday in Akora Khattak, 35 miles east of Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. But Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, a member of the Taliban negotiating committee, told a news conference that a deadlock had been reached between the two sides.

Khan said the meeting was canceled by Irfan Siddiquie, coordinator of the government negotiating committee, and he called it a worrisome development. He appealed to all sides to refrain from violence.

The central spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban told reporters by phone from an unknown location that the government had killed 23 militants during the last three days in the southern port city of Karachi and in Nowshera district, about 20 miles east of Peshawar.

A Pakistani security official who was not authorized to be quoted by name dismissed that as a “baseless allegation” and “propaganda tactics to justify their dastardly acts of terror.”

AFP Photo/A Majeed

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