Karzai holds secret meeting with feared warlord's officials

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The Independent Online

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has had a secret meeting with senior officials of the insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as part of the "reconciliation process" towards ending the war. During the talks, which took place in Kabul, the militant delegation is believed to have put forward a "blueprint" for a settlement which would involve the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country and the formation of a national unity government.

The Independent revealed 18 months ago that the Afghan government was holding talks with Mr Hekmatyar, a former Mujaheddin leader and CIA protégé now blacklisted as an international terrorist by the US and the UN.

This, however, is the first time that Mr Karzai has been involved in face-to-face negotiations with Mr Hekmatayar's group, Hezb-I-Islami, and is seen by international diplomats as a significant step in winning over one of most active factions of the insurgency.

The delegation from Hezb-I-Islami presented a timeline for a proposed peace deal which would include Nato forces leaving within nine months, followed by national elections in which insurgents now taking part in the conflict would participate.

The timeframe for Nato withdrawal, similar to one proposed by the Taliban leadership, would not be acceptable to Mr Karzai or his Western backers. However, say diplomatic sources, they do provide an opening basis for further talks. The negotiations might also give the Afghan government and Nato an opportunity to try to widen the gap between the Hekmatyar camp and the Taliban. There have been armed clashes between fighters from the two groups in Baghlan, in the north of the country, and a Hezb-I-Islami commander subsequently defected to the government with his men.

As a Mujaheddin commander against the Russians, Mr Hekmatayar was supported by the CIA and Pakistan. He later fell out with the Americans and based himself in Iran, from where he directed attacks on Nato in Afghanistan.

He is now believed to be in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan. Although his forces are fighting inside Afghanistan, he has remained independent from the Taliban and is said to be at odds with its religious leader, Mullah Omar. Separate talks between Afghan officials and the main Taliban faction appear to have slowed following the arrest by the Pakistani authorities of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, regarded as the Taliban's deputy commander.