Afghan officials meeting Taliban in Pakistan
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan officials are holding talks with the Taliban in Pakistan, the head of a provincial peace council in the insurgency's heartland Kandahar said on Tuesday, in a possible signal that Islamabad is boosting its support for Afghan peace efforts.
Kandahar peace council head Ata Mohammad Ahmadi told Reuters the officials have been meeting for "some time" with mid-level Taliban commander in the southwest Pakistani city of Quetta, where the leadership of the militant group is said to be based.
"In the last 10 days, our peace council delegation have gone to Quetta three times in twos and threes," he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has repeatedly called on regional power Pakistan to support its efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan were strained for months after the assassination in September of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Afghan officials blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency, allegations angrily denied by Islamabad.
But Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after a recent trip to Kabul that a lot of the ill will between the neighbours had faded. She said Pakistan would encourage Afghan militant groups to pursue peace if asked by Kabul.
Karzai held talks with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad last week.
"We are very optimistic about President Karzai's recent trip to Pakistan and that may have opened the door," Arsala Rahmani, a senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council - tasked with reaching out to insurgents - told Reuters.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Karzai said:
"While emphasizing the importance of Pakistan's support for the peace process, I hereby request our brotherly government of Pakistan to support and facilitate our direct negotiation efforts as part of the peace process."
Afghanistan is known to want access to Taliban leaders belonging so the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the city where it is believed to be based.
The Kabul government believes they would be the decision makers in any substantive peace negotiations aimed at ending the war now in its eleventh year.
Pakistan, seen as critical to efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and denies that any Taliban leaders are present in the southwestern city of Quetta, near the Afghan border.
It is unlikely that any meetings between Afghan officials and Taliban commanders could take place in Quetta without the knowledge of Pakistan's pervasive intelligence agencies.
Pakistan may have stepped up its cooperation with the Afghan government by allowing what Ahmadi said were meetings in Quetta. Pakistani officials were not immediately available for comment.
It was unclear if the reported Quetta meetings were part of broad Afghan government efforts to bring the Taliban into peace talks under the 70-member High Peace Council set up by Karzai.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Rob Taylor; Writing by Michael Georgy Editing by Maria Golovnina)
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