Afghan Taliban to meet U.S. officials, militants say, as peace efforts intensify

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban representatives and U.S. officials were due to meet in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, the militants’ main spokesman said, amid diplomatic moves toward establishing the basis for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE would also take part in the talks, which follow at least two meetings between Taliban officials and U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul would not confirm any meeting was due to take place. By 5 p.m. UAE time (1300 GMT), no one was available to say whether the talks had begun.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified, although the Taliban have refused to deal directly with the internationally-recognized government in Kabul, which it considers an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

The Taliban, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 overthrow, say the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is the main obstacle to peace. Even as the peace process gathers momentum, fighting has continued with heavy casualties on both sides.

Although the Afghan government has not taken part directly in the talks, a team from Kabul met U.S. and Saudi officials in the UAE on Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said.

Ghani has formed a team to negotiate peace with the Taliban but the group said in a statement on Monday that senior members have “no plans” to meet the representatives of the Afghan government in the UAE.

“The talks in UAE will happen with the U.S. envoy in the presence of representatives of some other countries,” said Mujahid in a statement.

As well as establishing direct contacts with the Taliban, U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to win support from countries with an interest in Afghanistan, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Western diplomats said the decision to move the venue of the talks from Doha to the UAE underscored efforts to involve Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to Qatar, more closely in the process and to exert influence on its ally, Pakistan.

In recent months Saudi Arabia has offered a $6 billion rescue package to Islamabad as the country attempts to plug its rapidly deteriorating finances.

“At this juncture, if Saudi Arabia tells Pakistan to support the Afghan peace process then there is no way that Pakistan can ignore it,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have long been strained over accusations that Pakistan supports insurgent groups in Afghanistan, a charge it denies. But earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump requested Pakistan’s support to advance the Afghan peace process.

Senior members of the Taliban in Afghanistan said the talks would continue for three days. Taliban officials from the movement’s political headquarters in Qatar and two representatives sent by Mullah Yaqub, elder son of the Taliban’s late founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, will be present.

Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Rupam Jain in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Editing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and David Stamp

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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