Rabbani extends olive branch to the Taliban

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The former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani extended an olive branch to his adversaries yesterday, saying that individual officials of the former Taliban regime might have a part in a future Afghan government.

He also undertook that troops from the Northern Alliance, of which he is titular head, would spare all Taliban troops who surrendered in Kunduz, whether they were Afghan nationals or not.

It had been feared that Northern Alliance forces would kill the hundreds of non-Afghans who had been fighting with the Taliban at Kunduz, rather than accept their surrender.

Mr Rabbani's remarks appeared designed to set a conciliatory tone ahead of the talks that start in Bonn tomorrow under the auspices of the United Nations. He had earlier said he would be prepared to relinquish his claims to leadership of the country if delegates to the Bonn conference produced a leader acceptable to all parties.

The participation of Taliban members in forming a future Afghan government is highly contentious. Setting out his position at a news conference in Kabul, Mr Rabbani ruled out representation of the Taliban as an organisation or party, but said that individual Taliban members could be admitted. "Those that don't have very obvious guilt and are elected by a loya jirga [tribal assembly] are acceptable," he said.

Pakistan has argued strongly for some Taliban representation in a future government, while Russia, Iran and India have been opposed. Pakistan argues that excluding anyone associated with the Taliban would in effect exclude most Pashtuns. They are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are concentrated across the south, where the country abuts Pakistan.

An example of the sort of individual Taliban official that Mr Rabbani may have had in mind is Mullah Mohammed Khaqsar, formerly the deputy interior minister, who defected to the Northern Alliance after the fall of Kabul.

It was still unclear precisely who would attend the talks in Bonn, but rumours that the conference ­ already postponed by a day ­ would be delayed again appeared to be unfounded. Mr Rabbani said the Northern Alliance would send 11 delegates, and three other delegations would send a total of 10; one, of four people, from supporters of the former king; and three each from the Pashtun exiles in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the mainly Hazara exiles in Cyprus.

The most under-represented group will probably be women. Only one female delegate has been confirmed, Amina Safi Afzali from the Northern Alliance, while a second may come with the deposed king's followers.

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the creation of a provisional council ­ probably with 15 members ­ to govern the country and prepare for the formation of an interim administration. This would then have to be approved by a loya jirga.

Hans-Joachim Daerr, Germany's ambassador to Pakistan and special envoy for Afghanistan, said he was hopeful that the Bonn conference would succeed in creating a provisional council. He held open the possibility that another mechanism could be found but said: "I don't see many other ways."