March 10, 2018 / 11:04 AM / 3 months ago

Afghan Taliban urge religious scholars to boycott peace conference

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban urged Islamic scholars on Saturday not to take part in a conference due to take place in Indonesia aimed at building agreement and support for possible future peace talks in Afghanistan.

The call follows President Ashraf Ghani’s offer last month to hold peace talks with the Taliban and comes as international powers have sought to build pressure on the movement to accept negotiations to end more than 16 years of war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have so far proved unresponsive to the offer. And on Saturday they said the proposed conference of religious scholars from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia was merely intended to “legitimize the presence of infidel invaders in the Islamic country of Afghanistan”.

The conference, proposed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in January and due to be held later this month, was an effort to present “the sacred Jihad in Afghanistan ... as unlawful bloodshed”, the Taliban said in a statement.

“Do not afford an opportunity to the invading infidels in Afghanistan to misuse your name and participation in this conference as means of attaining their malicious objective.”

Fighting to drive out international forces and re-establish their version of strict Islamic law, the Taliban control or contest large areas of Afghanistan and inflict heavy casualties on government security forces.

They have offered to talk to the United States about a possible peace agreement but have so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

Despite their unpromising rhetoric, however, Western diplomats say that efforts have been intensifying behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for possible future talks with regular contacts through intermediaries.

At the same time, the United States has stepped up battlefield pressure, notably through air strikes on the Taliban as Afghanistan’s international partners have sought to build up diplomatic support from neighbouring countries to push the movement to the negotiating table.

They have also invested considerable effort in trying to build consensus among religious scholars against tactics such as suicide bombings, which have been regularly carried out by Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Clelia Oziel

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