Afghan minister says Saudi talks a start


Violence in Afghanistan has surged over the past two years, raising the doubts about prospects for the country and its Western-backed government seven years after the Taliban were forced from power.

A group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials met in Saudi Arabia last month for discussions on how to end the worsening conflict.

While all sides agreed no real peace talks took place, the beginning of efforts to find a negotiated solution has been seized on as a glimmer of hope.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said the government was ready for talks but the process was just getting going.

"We have to talk to all those elements that are ready to begin a peaceful life in Afghanistan. We are ready to accept them to work closer, if they are ready to put down their weapons," Spanta told a new conference in Islamabad.

"But we are at the beginning of the process," Spanta said after talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

But he ruled out talks with those who did not first give up their arms and recognise the constitution: "Appeasement policy is not a right policy."

Ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both important U.S. allies have been severely strained at times over recent years over Afghan complaints Pakistan has not done enough to stop Taliban from infiltrating from sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan.

Spanta made no criticism of Pakistan on Wednesday though he repeated an Afghan demand for the militants to be tackled, wherever they may be.

"We have the responsibility to destroy the sanctuaries of Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, also in Pakistan … this is our responsibility for the security of our nations," he said.

Spanta said Afghanistan wanted Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to visit this year.

The neighbours are organising a meeting of ethnic Pashtun leaders from both countries, to be held in Islamabad next week, billed as a "mini-jigra" or traditional council.

Pashtuns live on both sides of their border and many of them sympathise with the Taliban, most of whom are also Pashtun.

Analysts say winning over the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border is essential for ending violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The worsening violence in Afghanistan has also strained relations between Pakistan and the United States.

Frustrated U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been stepping up attacks on militants in Pakistan, launching a string of missile strikes by pilotless aircraft and a commando raid on a border village.

The attacks have angered Pakistan and led to calls from opposition politicians for an end to support for the unpopular U.S.-led campaign against militancy.

Pakistan rules out foreign military strikes on its territory saying they violate its sovereignty and increase support for the militants.

Qureshi said Pakistan had made its objections clear.

"These strikes are counter-productive," he said. "If we have to be successful in this fight against extremism and militancy, we have to win hearts and minds of the people."


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