Taliban Talks in Saudi Officials

Taliban Talks in Saudi Officials, Afghanistan and Pakistan plan to open a second front in negotiations with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia as US-brokered talks get under way in Qatar, officials said Sunday.

The Taliban, ousted from power by a US-led invasion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, announced earlier this month that they planned to set up a political office in Qatar ahead of talks with Washington.

And Taliban negotiators have begun holding preliminary talks with US officials in the Gulf state on plans for negotiations aimed at ending the decade-long Afghan war, a former Taliban official said Sunday.

But Afghan and Taliban officials indicated in response to a BBC report about plans for talks in Saudi Arabia that both Kabul and Islamabad -- usually at loggerheads on the issue -- were looking for their own talks with the Taliban.

Asked for his response to the BBC report, Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said: "Of course we support any steps towards the Afghan peace process." He refused to comment further.

But a senior Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the BBC report was accurate, saying: "We will always pursue all roads towards peace in Afghanistan, including contacts with the Taliban that are not limited to the Qatar office."

A member of the Taliban's leadership council, the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, also backed the report of talks in Saudi Arabia.

"The idea that the Taliban should have a point of contact in Saudi is pushed by the Pakistan and Afghan governments," he said on condition of anonymity.

"This is because they think they have been sidelined. They want some control over peace talks."

Supporting this theory, Kabul announced Sunday that Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar would visit Kabul on Wednesday, marking what Mosazai called a "new phase" in cooperation between the two countries.

Khar would meet President Hamid Karzai to "discuss the fight against terrorism and Pakistan's essential support to the peace process in Afghanistan", he said.

Khar's visit comes after the always touchy relations between the two countries broke down following the assassination of Kabul's chief peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September.

Karzai accused Pakistan of responsibility for the murder and said Islamabad was sabotaging all attempts at negotiations with the Taliban.

The president was wary over being sidelined in the Qatar talks, leading Washington to dispatch special envoy Marc Grossman to Kabul last week to assure him of a central role for his government in any major negotiations.

And in another effort to soothe Karzai's doubts, a delegation from the Qatar government is expected to visit Kabul to explain its role in the talks, High Peace Council secretary Aminundin Muzaffari told AFP.

Preliminary negotiations between the US and the Taliban are already under way in the Gulf state, a former Taliban official who is now a member of the Afghan government appointed High Peace Council said Sunday.

"The actual peace talks have not yet begun -- they are in the process of trust-building and obviously this will take some time," Mawlavi Qalamuddin, who once led the Taliban's feared religious police when the hardline Islamists were in power, told AFP.

One of the trust-building measures demanded by the Taliban is the release of five of its members from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, while Washington wants the insurgents to renounce violence.
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