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US officials, Taliban begin preliminary talks in Qatar
Members of the Taliban began preliminary talks with US officials in Qatar on Sunday in a "trust-building" measure ahead of multilateral peace negotiations aimed at ending the 10-year-long conflict in Afghanistan.
AFP - Taliban negotiators have begun holding preliminary talks with US officials in Qatar on plans for peace negotiations aimed at ending the decade-long war in Afghanistan, a former Taliban official 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 told AFP.
Qalamuddin, who once led the Taliban's feared religious police when the hardline Islamists were in power, is now a member of the High Peace Council appointed by the government of President Hamid Karzai.
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.
Qalamuddin said the delegation already in the Gulf state included Mohammad Tayeb Agha, a close ally and secretary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban's former ambassador to Riyadh.
With them were Sher Mohammad Abaas Stanikzai, former deputy foreign minister in the Taliban government, and Aziz-Ul Rahman, a former Taliban diplomat in Dubai, said Qalamuddin.
"At the moment the delegation is holding preliminary talks. It's in its very early phases. You need to build some trust before starting talks."
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.
Qalamuddin said the Taliban delegation "obviously" went to Qatar from Pakistan, indicating that Afghanistan's southern neighbour -- accused by Kabul of blocking past attempts at peace talks -- could be getting on board.
Another sign of a thaw between the two countries came with the announcement Sunday that Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will visit Kabul on Wednesday.
Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said the visit would mark a "new phase" in cooperation between the two countries, adding that Khar would hold talks with Afghan Foreign Minister Zulmai Rasoul and President Hamid Karzai.
"Both sides will discuss the fight against terrorism and Pakistan's essential support to the peace process in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan plays a key role in Afghan peace process and Afghanistan need a sincere effort of our neighbouring country toward peace negotiations," Mosazai said.
Khar's visit comes after Pakistan made overtures to Afghanistan to resume talks over the Taliban which broke down following the assassination of Kabul's chief peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September, officials said.
Karzai accused Pakistan of responsibility for the murder and last month said Islamabad was sabotaging all attempts at negotiations with the Taliban.
The president was initially wary of being sidelined in the Qatar talks, and Washington despatched special envoy Marc Grossman to Kabul last week to assure him of a central role for his government in any major negotiations.
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.
"We are expecting a delegation from Qatar to come to Kabul to discuss with us the role of Afghans in peace talks and when and how peace talks in Qatar should happen and proceed.