Afghanistan peace conference calls for talks with militants

An Afghan peace conference has called on the government to take formal steps toward negotiating with insurgents.

Kabul: An Afghan peace conference has called on the government to take formal steps toward negotiating with insurgents.

Some 1,500 delegates from across Afghanistan on Friday endorsed resolutions intended to lay groundwork for peace talks between the government and Taliban and other militant groups.

Conference deputy chairman Qiamuddin Kashaf read the final statement of the conference that said the government should establish a "framework for negotiations" as a first step.

They said militants who joined the peace process should be removed from a U.N. blacklist, and that insurgents who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign terrorist groups.

Earlier the delegates to an Afghan peace conference voiced strong support Friday for negotiations between their government and the Taliban to try to end years of war.

Speakers at the conference, or peace jirga, raised expectations that it would endorse President Hamid Karzai`s broadly stated plans to reach out to the insurgents when the 1,500 delegates release a joint statement later Friday wrapping up three days of deliberations.

Such an endorsement would deliver Karzai, increasingly unpopular due to corruption in his government and his fraud-marred re-election last year, a political boost and allow him to claim a mandate to pursue his peace plans.

But any reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other insurgents groups were likely to remain a long way off.

The Taliban did not take part in the jirga, dismissing it as a phony bid for peace and sending suicide attackers in a failed attempt to disrupt its start. Taliban leaders insist there will be no talks with the government until US-led foreign troops have left the country — a condition Karzai cannot accept.

Speaker after speaker at a plenary session Friday said that negotiating with the insurgents was the only way forward to end nearly nine years of fighting.

"We should begin negotiations with all the opposition groups, without any conditions," said one delegate, Amanullah Usmanzai. Many others made similar comments.

Representatives called for senior Taliban leaders to be removed from a UN blacklist that bans international travel and freezes their assets — a step that Western nations would likely only endorse if it was done on a case-by-case basis.

Some delegates said Afghan detainees held at US military prisons in Afghanistan and Cuba should be released or handed to Afghan authorities. Others urged the government to declare a unilateral cease-fire as a goodwill gesture.

The wide-ranging nature of the proposals — from anti-corruption measures to protecting womens` rights and blocking "immoral" television shows — suggest the final communique will be couched in very general terms.

One recommendation likely to be taken up by the government was the formation of a commission to develop and implement the findings of the conference, including ways to broach talks with the Taliban.

With violence running at record levels, Karzai wants to offer rank-and-file insurgents amnesties and other incentives to lay down their arms, and to hold talks with top Taliban leaders if they renounce al Qaeda and vow to uphold the constitution.

Washington supports overtures to lower-rung insurgents, but is skeptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. US-led NATO troops are preparing a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province that the Obama administration hopes can help turn the war around.

Some delegates have been skeptical about the way the jirga was conducted, complaining its chairman was appointed by Karzai rather than elected, and saying that its duration was too short to achieve a meaningful outcome.

In the first two days of talks, the provincial, religious, tribal and other leaders split up into groups of 50, which reported their conclusions Friday.

Delegate Noorzia Charkhi said her group agreed that talks should go ahead with the Taliban, but not if members had committed criminal acts. "We can negotiate anywhere that is acceptable to them," she said. "We can talk in Saudi Arabia or Turkey or inside Afghanistan."

Several delegates said the jirga should demand that NATO forces in Afghanistan stop raiding innocent people`s houses and prevent airstrikes that kill civilians — a sore point for Afghans that US commanders say is their top priority.

Delegate Obeidullah Obaid said the jirga should set a deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghan cities and withdraw to border areas.

Delegate Mir Wais suggested a cease-fire and a halt to NATO operations to create a "trusting atmosphere" for negotiations.

Many delegates said any talks between the government and insurgents should be conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.

Bureau Report

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