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Afghan delegates continue peace talks

Delegates meet to work out details of a statement likely to endorse negotiations with the Taliban to try to end Afghanistan's years of war.

KABUL // Delegates reconvened today for the planned final day of a national peace conference, hashing out details of a communique likely to endorse negotiations with the Taliban to try to end Afghanistan's years of war. With violence running at record levels, president Hamid 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 Qa'eda and vow to uphold the constitution.

Winning the backing of the conference would politically bolster Mr Karzai, who is increasingly unpopular because of corruption in his government and his fraud-marred re-election last year. But the 1,500 provincial, religious, tribal and other leaders attending the peace jirga, as the conference is known, have argued over whether Taliban's top leadership should be welcomed to the negotiating table. And some said the three-day jirga has been too short to achieve a meaningful outcome.

Delegates split into committees of about 50 each on Thursday, and representatives began reporting their conclusions at a plenary session that opened this morning. These findings were to be distilled into the final communique. Given the diversity of opinion, details of how to handle reconciliation with the Taliban were likely to be couched only in general terms. Deliberations have at times been acrimonious. Among key points of difference: whether militant leaders should be removed from a UN blacklist that freezes assets and bars overseas travel, and whether US bounties on the heads of senior Taliban leaders should be lifted.

"Everybody agrees with peace, and peace without negotiations is not possible," Hamid Gailani, a powerful lawmaker from the Taliban's heartland province of Kandahar, said after Thursday's round of closed-door meetings. Even if Mr Karzai wins broad support of jirga delegates for his peace plans, it would only be a tentative first step toward negotiating an end to the nearly nine-year conflict in Afghanistan, where violence shows no sign of easing despite a surge in US forces.

The Taliban have dismissed the jirga as a "phony reconciliation process" stacked with Mr Karzai's supporters, and suicide bombers launched an attack on the opening session Wednesday. It was thwarted. The Taliban insist there will be no negotiations until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan - a condition that Mr Karzai could not accept. And while Washington supports overtures to lower-rung insurgents, it 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.

* AP

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