Taliban leader 'ready to start peace talks'

 

The Taliban's reclusive leader has said his group is willing to start peace negotiations - even as he urged more attacks on foreign troops.

In a wide-ranging emailed message, Mullah Mohammad Omar blamed the US and the Afghan government for the derailment of talks two months ago.

He also called on Afghans to boycott next year's presidential elections, describing them as being manipulated by the US.

In a message issued ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the one-eyed chief of the Afghan insurgency urged the army and police turn their guns on foreign forces, government officials and the Afghan troops who are co-operating with the US-led coalition forces.

The Taliban's long-standing policy is to continue attacks even as it pursues negotiations.

The five-page message was emailed to news organisations. Mullah Omar regularly issues such messages for the two yearly Eid holy days.

Striking a conciliatory tone elsewhere in the message, he denied that the insurgents were seeking to monopolise power in Afghanistan and said his group favoured what he described as an "Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles".

He called on Afghans, however, to stay away from the April 5 elections for a new president and councils that will run Afghanistan's 34 provinces, saying the polls are "a waste of time".

The reclusive leader has not been seen since he reportedly fled a village in southern Afghanistan on motorcycle three months after the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. There are no known audio recordings of his voice since early 2002 or any pictures. He mainly communicates in messages relayed by his spokesmen.

In the message, Mullah Omar did repeat a key US demand opening the way for peace talks by pledging not to use Afghanistan as a base to threaten other countries, although he again did not openly denounce al Qaida - one of the original conditions set by the United States that was temporarily dropped to get talks going.

"Our fundamental principle according to our unchanging policy is that we do not intend to harm anyone, nor we allow anyone to harm others from our soil," the message said, echoing the original language used by the Taliban on June 18 when they announced the opening of a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Some elements of the Taliban, including the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, are believed to still have ties with al Qaida.

Those talks foundered before they began when the Taliban marked the opening with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the group's name when they ruled the country. President Hamid Karzai immediately pulled the plug on talks saying the office had all the trappings of an embassy of a government in exile.

"The aim of our contacts and talks with the invaders which are conducted through the political office is to put an end to occupation of Afghanistan. No one should perceive that the Mujahedeen will relinquish of their lofty religious principles and national interests. I assure you that I will not reach any illegitimate compromise or unlawful deal," said the message, which was also written in English.

Mullah Omar complained the talks faltered because "the invaders and their allies are creating obstacles in the way of resolving problems by making various pretexts".

The Taliban has already held secret talks with Karzai's representatives to try to jump-start a peace process, Afghan officials and a senior Taliban representative recently said.

The discussions with members of the Afghan High Peace Council, appointed by Mr Karzai three years ago to conduct talks with the Taliban, have so far been unofficial and preliminary. They are seen as an attempt to agree on conditions for formal talks.

But Mullah Omar warned that whatever the result of peace talks, the Taliban would not accept the signing of a bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States that would allow the presence of foreign troops beyond the end of 2014, when all international combat forces are to leave the country.

When signed, such an agreement would allow a small force of trainers and possibly counter-terrorism troops to remain. Although no numbers have been announced yet, it is believed there would be about 9,000 from the US and 6,000 from its allies.

"The Afghans consider the presence of a small number of invading troops as an encroachment against their independence as they are not willing to accept presence of thousands of foreign troops," the message said.

The Taliban has intensified its campaign against Afghan and foreign forces in recent months, especially after the coalition handed over responsibility for security to the army and police forces they have been training in recent years.

They have especially targeted areas in their traditional homelands in southern and eastern Afghanistan in an effort to take advantage of the withdrawal of foreign troops.

As a result casualties among Afghan forces and civilians have increased dramatically.

Mullah Omar denied responsibility for increased civilian casualties, despite a recent US report that blamed insurgents for more than three-quarters.

But he said his fighters would not stop fighting, despite conciliatory hints about political inclusiveness and his belief that Afghan youngsters should have a "modern education".

"I urge all Afghans who perform duties in the ranks of the enemy to turn barrels of their guns against the infidel invaders and their allies instead of martyring their Muslim Afghans," the message said.

"The Islamic Emirate considers it its religious and national obligation to liberate the country from the occupation. When the occupation ends, reaching an understanding with the Afghans will not be a hard task because, by adhering to and having common principles and culture, the Afghans understand each other better."

AP

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