Peace talks agreement not new: Afghan Taliban
KABUL, Nov 4 (AFP) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia on Saturday played down hopes that an agreement to hold peace talks with the opposition under UN auspices could represent a breakthrough in the brutal civil war.
Taliban Deputy Information Minister Abdurrahman Ahmad Hotak said the religious militia had always been ready for talks with its northern-based opponents, led by veteran commander Ahmad Shah Masood.
"This is not something new. Our movement, since its very inception has always relied on understanding and dialogue," Hotak told reporters at a press briefing following the overnight announcement of the agreement.
"We have always wanted serious talks and sincere talks."
UN officials said Friday the Taliban and the internationally recognised opposition had agreed to UN-sponsored peace talks.
"The two sides have sent me separate letters agreeing in writing to a process of dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations," said Francesco Vendrell, Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Afghanistan.
The letters were signed by Taliban chief negotiator, Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, and Abdullah Abdullah, acting foreign minister of the ousted Afghan government led by president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"The two sides hereby agree to a process of dialogue ... aimed at bringing about, in the shortest possible time, an end to the armed conflict in Afghanistan through political means," they said.
They agreed to negotiate directly or through representatives, with "the active participation" of the UN secretary-general, his personal representative, or their intermediary.
The bitter enemies have held indirect talks in the past without achieving a breakthrough, including an early summer round this year under the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Thursday's agreement contained no provision for a ceasefire and the fighting, especially in the northeastern provinces, is likely to continue at least until the onset of winter in a few weeks.
The Taliban, a movement of militant Islamic students, swept into Kabul in 1996, driving out the Rabbani government and imposing a strict blend of Sharia and tribal law.
They now control some 90 percent of the country, except for pockets of resistance, particularly in the rugged northeastern provinces of Badakshan and Takhar, where Masood is closest to his supply lines from Tajikistan.
The Taliban claim Masood is receiving Russian and Iranian military support, while the opposition says the militia's ranks are swelled with Pakistani troops and Arab volunteers.
Vendrell has in the past appealed to Afghanistan's neighbours to stay out of the conflict.
Even on Friday as he announced the agreement -- the result of months of shuttle diplomacy including high-level talks with Pakistani and Iranian officials -- he sounded a word of caution about its chances of immediate success.
He said the peace process "is going to be long, certainly it is not a matter of weeks."
"I hope it is not years," he said, "but certainly there is no time frame.
"I am not sure that the parties are very keen to reach a stable and permanent ceasefire."
Hotak brushed aside suggestions that the Taliban agreed to the talks because of the possibility of further UN sanctions.
The United States and Russia are pushing for more santions on top of the aviation and financial curbs imposed on the Taliban last year for their refusal to extradite indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden.
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