x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Afghans to hold Saudi talks with Taliban

A Riyadh-based diplomat says talks in Saudi Arabia will be separate from US-brokered meetings in Qatar and would be the first such talks to take place in the kingdom.

RIYADH // Afghan officials and representatives of the Taliban insurgents fighting the western-backed government are to hold peace talks in Saudi Arabia, a Riyadh-based Afghan diplomat said yesterday.

"An Afghan government delegation and a Taliban delegation will hold talks in Saudi Arabia," the diplomat told Agence-France Presse on condition of anonymity, but he could not give a time frame.

He said the talks in Saudi Arabia would be separate from US-brokered meetings in Qatar and would be the first such talks to take place in the Sunni Muslim kingdom.

In Kabul, however, a government spokesman cautioned that no steps had yet been taken to start talks in Saudi Arabia.

"No practical steps have been taken to start talks in Saudi Arabia, it has only been a suggestion," said Akim Hasher, head of the government media and information centre.

"The Afghan government is very clear on talks -- we have always preferred Saudi to Qatar," he said. "There is a possibility that the talks will take place in Saudi as well -- Qatar is definitely not the only option."

Taliban negotiators have begun preliminary discussions with the United States in Qatar on plans for peace talks aimed at ending the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

They have also announced plans to set up an office in Doha.

A member of the Taliban's leadership council, the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, said on Sunday that "the idea that the Taliban should have a point of contact in Saudi is pushed by the Pakistan and Afghan governments."

Pakistan was feeling "sidelined" from the US-brokered talks, he said.

Supporting this theory, Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai announced Sunday that Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar would visit Kabul on Wednesday.

Mr Mosazai told a news conference the visit would mark a "new phase" in cooperation between the two countries, adding that Mr Khar would hold talks with Afghan Foreign Minister Zulmai Rasoul and President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Khar's visit comes after Pakistan made overtures to Afghanistan to resume talks on the Taliban that broke down following the assassination of Kabul's chief peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September, officials said.

Mr Karzai accused Pakistan of responsibility for the murder and last month said Islamabad was sabotaging all attempts at negotiations with the Taliban, which US-led forces toppled in 2001.

The Afghan diplomat, however, said there were no plans for a third party to attend the negotiations in Saudi Arabia. "So far, there is no third party that will be present at the talks," he said.

The Afghan government has not yet officially confirmed the Saudi talks, but on Sunday, in response to questions on the plan, the foreign ministry spokesman said his government supports "any steps towards the Afghan peace process."