Afghanistan

Afghan senate calls for direct talks with Taliban

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By Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL, May 8 (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government should hold direct talks with the resurgent Taliban and other opposition forces, the Afghan senate said in a formal vote on Tuesday, in a bid to end the rising bloodshed in the country.

The senate, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, also urged Western troops in the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces to halt the hunt for Taliban fighters and other militants.

The motion comes at a time of rising public discontent with the government of President Hamid Karzai over civilian casualties at the hands of Western troops, corruption and the failure to turn billions of dollars in aid into better livelihoods.

The senate motion calling for "direct negotiations with the concerned Afghan sides in the country" was passed by an overwhelming majority and now goes to Karzai, who has in the past failed in efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

It follows a controversial law offering an amnesty from war crimes committed over nearly three decades of civil war.

The senate is led by former president Sibghatullah Mojadidi, a confidant of Karzai who heads a presidential commission that has tried to reach out to the Taliban and other opposition groups.

Nearly half of the 101 members of the senate are appointed by Karzai and it usually works in cooperation with him.

The senate said efforts should be made to find out the demands of the Taliban and other opponents and in the meantime military operations against them should cease.

"If the need arises for an operation, it should be carried out with coordination of the national army and police and with the consultation of the government of Afghanistan."

The Taliban could not be contacted for comment, but in the past they have ruled out peace talks and have vowed to drive out foreign troops and topple Karzai's government.

Karzai is under pressure from his own government after key members last month joined critics to form a new political group, the National Front, effectively the first opposition in a parliament that has no formal party structure.

They have called for some of the president's powers to be removed through the creation of a new role of prime minister.

RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT

Fighting has escalated since early last year to its worst since 2001.

On Tuesday, a U.N. driver was shot dead in southern Afghanistan on his way to work, and in recent days two U.S. soldiers and at least 15 police have been killed in attacks.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who held talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on Tuesday, said the fight against the Taliban must push on.

"We cannot afford to fail because the consequences would be felt in the region ... and globally," he told reporters.

NATO has more than 35,000 troops in Afghanistan -- the alliance's biggest ever ground operation.

"The final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one," added de Hoop Scheffer. "The final answer in Afghanistan is reconstruction, development and nation-building."

De Hoop Scheffer said the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan was of great importance.

Leaders of the uneasy neighbours held their first talks in months on April 30 in Turkey, and de Hoop Scheffer said he hoped their meeting would have positive results.

"We are all in the same boat. We are fighting terrorism, we are fighting extremism, we are preventing Afghanistan becoming again a failed state," he said.

"It is of great importance that we all play a role and I think Pakistan is playing an important role in this," he said.

(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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