KABUL Afghanistan on Tuesday played down the possibility of an early breakthrough in talks with a main insurgent faction, saying negotiations were still in the early stages and it did not want to raise expectations.
The government announced last week President Hamid Karzai had met a senior delegation from Hezb-i-Islami, one of the three main groups fighting Afghan and foreign forces in the country, his first confirmed talks with the group that rivals the Taliban.
Although the talks are preliminary, the public acknowledgement of the meeting was itself a significant milestone after many months of furtive efforts by Karzai to reach out to the militants in a bid to bring an end to the fighting.
A member of the Hezb-i-Islami delegation who met Karzai told Reuters last week the group had presented a 15-point plan, including a demand that foreign troops begin withdrawing in July this year and pull out completely within six months.
That timetable was flexible, the delegate later said, and indicated the rebels could be satisfied with Washington's target of mid-2011 to start withdrawing, provided preparations to pull out began sooner to demonstrate America was sincere.
"The negotiation process is in progress with Hezb-i-Islami," Karzai's chief spokesman, Waheed Omer, told reporters on Tuesday in the first public statement on the talks since the government confirmed the meeting had taken place.
"As for the proposal from Hezb-i-Islami... I'm afraid I cannot release opinions at his time to you because we are in the early stages of the talks and I do not want to raise expectations," he said.
Washington has said it supports plans to reintegrate low-level fighters back into Afghan society, while cautiously backing Afghan efforts to reconcile with senior insurgents, provided they lay down their weapons and repudiate al Qaeda.
Last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the timing was still not right for reconciliation with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, acknowledging military pressure had yet to weaken the group enough.
Hezb-i-Islami, led by veteran guerrilla commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has shared some of the aims of the Taliban, but has led a separate insurgency, mainly in the east and north of Afghanistan.
Hezb-i-Islami is not considered as big a threat by NATO forces as the Taliban and a network of followers of insurgent commander Jalaluddin Haqqani based mainly in the southeast.
(Editing by Peter Graff)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)