Afghan groups meet behind closed doors

AL KHOR (Qatar): Taliban representatives met Afghan political figures for a second day here on Sunday, but it was unclear if the dialogue hosted by Qatar moved any closer to long-awaited formal negotiations to end Afghanistan`s devastating war.

The participants emerged from the meeting smiling and laughing, but they refused to talk to reporters.

One Afghan who was part of the talks said the Taliban and several other Afghan political movements were participating and all sides had agreed not to make any statements until a common statement had been agreed upon.

The meeting held in the Qatari seaside town of Al Khor was the first sign of life in weeks for the hoped-for peace process to end the more than 13-year-old war between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government.

Several previous initiatives have failed over the years to end the war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the US and its allies drove the Taliban`s hard-line regime from power in 2001.The informal talks came even as fighting in Afghanistan escalated after the withdrawal of most US and allied troops.

The Taliban recently launched a fierce new offensive in northern Afghanistan that brought its fighters to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunduz.

Afghan police and army soldiers have launched a counter-offensive in Kunduz, but the Taliban advance has proved a severe test of the Nato-trained Afghan security forces.

The Afghan government has made no official statement on the meetings, though a member of the country`s High Peace Council confirmed a delegation would attend meetings in Qatar with the Taliban.

The Qatar meetings are being held behind closed doors, and there has been confusion over their nature.

Taliban`s official spokesman has denied any peace talks, saying representatives were only attending a world affairs forum organised by Pugwash Council, a global organisation that promotes conflict resolution.

However, Qatar`s foreign ministry later announced that it was holding `open discussions` involving the Taliban and Afghan figures aiming to bring about reconciliation. It was not immediately clear if the two events were one and the same.-Reuters Syed Irfan Raza adds from Islamabad: Pakistan has said it supports Afghanistan in its talks with the Taliban for a permanent peace in the war-torn country.

Addressing a press conference here on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said: `Pakistan fully supports this reconciliation process being held between the Afghan government and Taliban in Qatar.

A 20-member Afghan government delegation was holding the talks with Taliban representatives aimed at ending Afghanistan`s long war.

Answering a question, Foreign Secretary Chaudhry said it was a `track two` dialogue and expressed the hope that it would succeed in creating grounds for formal talks.

Since it is a track two dialogue, the participants say they are attending it in their individual capacity, and not as representatives of any government or party.

Even Afghan presidential spokesman Ajmal Abidy said the members of High Peace Council would attend the talks only in their `personal capacity`.

Mr Chaudhry said Pakistan always supported the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process for peace, security and development in Afghanistan and in the region. He said stability in Afghanistan was critical to peace in South Asia because a stable Afghanistan would ensure peace in the region, adding that Pakistan had repeatedly offered to facilitate the reconciliation process.

Ambassador of Nepal to Pakistan Bharat Raj Paudyal, National Disaster Management Authority Chairman Maj Gen Asghar Nawaz, Director Military Operations Brig Azhar Waqas and Air Chief of Staff (Operations) Air Commodore Javad attended the press conference.

Meanwhile, Mr Chaudhry said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had decided to set up a relief fund for the quake-affected people of Nepal. `We will also mobilise people and philanthropists to donate in the fund,` he said.

Published in Dawn