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Afghan leaders, former king, in Rome peace talks
ROME, Jan 19 (AFP) - Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini on Friday told Afghanistan's ex-king Zaher Shah and other exiled Afghan figures that the international community was committed to helping them find an end to the conflict in their country.
Dini spoke on the eve of a two-day conference bringing together the former monarch and 37 other Afghan figures -- but excluding both the Taliban militia that rules most of the country and the opposition Northern Alliance.
Participants are notably to seek agreement on calling a Loya Jirga, the traditional Afghan Grand Assembly, in a bid to end the Afghan civil war, appoint a head of state and establish a transitional government.
The 86-year-old former king has lived in exile in Italy since 1973, when he was overthrown by a cousin.
"We want progress in your country," Dini told Zaher, hailing him as the man who has promoted the assembly initiative since 1999 when he launched an appeal from Rome for a government of national unity to draw up a new constitution.
The weekend meeting is to seek a compromise that would be acceptable to the Afghan people and the factions that rule large swaths of the country.
It is "an alternative to dialogue" at other levels, said Dini.
The talks will start a day after a UN deadline for the Taliban to hand over indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden expired and new UN sanctions took effect.
A US court has indicted bin Laden to stand trial for allegedly masterminding two US embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, but the Taliban insist the Saudi millionaire is a "guest" in Afghanistan and there is no evidence against him.
A seven-member executive committee is to assist the former king in coordinating the Afghan reconciliation process at the talks.
Dini noted that Afghanistan was not only a victim of invasion -- by Soviet troops in 1979 -- but also wracked by warring of rival factions while being the origin of drug traffickers.
"Ninety percent of the drugs -- cocaine and others -- sold in Europe originate in Afghanistan," said Dini.
UN figures released Thursday showed Afghanistan remained the world's largest producer of opium last year, although production had fallen some 29 percent to 3,276 tonnes due mainly to severe drought.
The war in Afghanistan does "not only mean suffering for the people but also represents a possible source of infection for the international community because of terrorism, fanatism, drugs and instability," Zalmai Rassoul, Zaher's private secretary, told a news conference at the Italian foreign ministry.
"The Afghan people have a right to choose their own future and we are here to give people that opportunity," he said, insisting that "all sections of Afghan society" were represented" at the Rome meeting.
He added however that Afghanistan's former monarch was in favor of talks with the Taliban to settle the conflict.
Italy, which has provided humanitarian assistance to the country, including two hospitals, has long played a key role in helping the various Afghan parties settle the conflict.
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