APphoto_Pakistan

A Pakistani police officer looks at a shrapnel-riddled gate damaged in a suicide bombing on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday. (Mohammad Sajjad / Associated Press / February 10, 2014)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – As the Pakistani government attempts to hold peace talks with banned Islamist militants, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the outskirts of Peshawar on Monday, killing four women and wounding four others, officials said.

Residents said the victims were on their way to a religious gathering in Peshawar, the capital of militant-riddled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, when a man detonated explosives weighing about 13 pounds.

A senior police official, Najeeb ur Rehman, said that two associates of the bomber were arrested and were being interrogated.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, a banned Islamist militant group, denied responsibility for the bombing. The group similarly distanced itself from an attack a day earlier at a shrine in the southern port city of Karachi in which eight worshipers were killed and 11 others were injured.

The attacks have renewed questions about the prospects of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace initiative, which has had a slow start. Two negotiators nominated by the Taliban to represent them in talks with a four-member government committee returned Monday from the tribal area of North Waziristan, where they had met at an undisclosed location with the militant group’s leadership council, or shura.

One of the negotiators, Muhammad Ibrahim, said that he was optimistic that the two sides could reach a cease-fire. He said that he conveyed the government’s demands to the Taliban leadership and received demands from the Taliban, but declined to disclose them.

The Taliban reportedly has presented a list of demands, including the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the tribal areas and the release of Taliban prisoners from government custody – concessions that the Pakistani government is unwilling to make.

The government committee has demanded that talks be held within the framework of the constitution--meaning the Taliban must drop its stated aim of installing sharia, or Islamic law--and address only areas of Pakistan that are affected by the insurgency. It also called for an end to activities, such as suicide bombings, that would negatively affect peace talks.

Ibrahim said that the two committees would meet for the first time within two days.

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Ali is a Times special correspondent.