Taliban rejects offer of peace talks in Afghanistan

KABUL / PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have rejected the offer of talks in Kabul next month in Saudi Arabia, where militants fighting to restore strict Islamic law in Afghanistan will meet with US officials to pursue their peace efforts, announced Sunday a leader.

PHOTO FILE: The Taliban march while they celebrate the ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, June 16, 2018. REUTERS / Parwiz

Representatives from the Taliban, the United States and countries from the region met this month in the United Arab Emirates for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban refused to hold formal talks with the Afghan government backed by the West.

"We will meet US authorities in Saudi Arabia in January next year and we will begin discussions that have remained incomplete in Abu Dhabi," a Taliban board member told Reuters. "However, we have made it clear to all stakeholders that we will not talk to the Afghan government."

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the group's leaders would not talk to the Afghan government.

Activists have insisted on getting an agreement with the United States beforehand, which the group considers the main force in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban government by US-led forces in 2001.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict intensified after Taliban representatives began meeting with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this year. The leaders of the warring parties met at least three times to discuss the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.

But the United States insisted that any final settlement be Afghan-led.

According to data from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission released in November, the government of President Ashraf Ghani controlled or influenced more than 65 percent of the population, but only 55.5 percent of the 407 districts in the country. Afghanistan, a record level since 2001. The Taliban say they control 70 percent of the country.

A close associate of Ghani said the government would continue to try to establish a direct diplomatic line of communication with the Taliban.

"The talks should be Afghan-led and Afghan-held," the aide said on condition of anonymity. "It is important that the Taliban recognize this fact."

US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, prompting Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign. It was reported that he was considering a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Additional report of Rupam Jain in Kabul, edited by Nick Macfie

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