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Ex-Afghan president to lead Taliban peace talks

Former mujahideen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani will head 'high peace council' to start seeking negotiated end to conflict.

KABUL // Afghanistan's former president Burhanuddin Rabbani was chosen today to lead a council tasked with starting peace talks with Taliban-led insurgents, an official source said. 

A cleric, like many of the Taliban, but an ethnic Tajik like many of their opponents, Mr Rabbani has said in recent years that he has had contacts with some militants willing to consider negotiations. He was once the leader of a powerful mujahideen party during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and served as president in the 1990s when mujahideen factions waged a war for control of power that ended with the Taliban's rise to power.

Mr Rabbani subsequently became the political leader of the alliance of Afghan factions which, with the help of the United States, overthrew the largely Pashtun Taliban in 2001. With the war entering its 10th year, in June President Hamid Karzai won approval from a tribal gathering to form a "high peace council" to start seeking a negotiated end to the conflict. Today the 68-member council chose Mr Rabbani as its chairman, a senior official at President Karzai's office told Reuters.

Mr Rabbani's first step for opening the way for talks will be establishing a working mechanism acceptable to other members of the council, dominated by powerful former factional leaders, power brokers and some ex-Taliban members. The insurgency is now at its bloodiest since 2001, despite the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, and there is a growing sense both at home and among many of Afghanistan's allies that talks may be the only route to peace.

Mr Karzai had repeatedly said he wanted Taliban leaders to renounce violence and links with al Qa'eda, accept Afghanistan's new constitution and surrender their arms. But on Thursday, he said the government would not interfere in the council's efforts as it tries to start the talks. Oobservers and the Taliban say Mr Karzai's longstanding conditions imply a surrender for insurgents, which they are unlikely to accept as they gain strength around the country.

The Taliban have repeatedly said they will engage in no talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. 

*Reuters