Taliban to decide soon on talks offer

As President Karzai awaits response, militants launch attack in capital of Helmand

Taliban leaders will decide soon whether to join talks with the Afghan government, a militant spokesman said yesterday, after President Hamid Karzai invited them to a peace council aimed at ending the war.

In the country's south, suicide attackers launched an assault in the capital of Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province, with gunmen holed up in three buildings, battling government and Nato troops who returned fire with helicopter strikes. When the fighting stopped before dusk a witness saw the bullet-riddled bodies of four gunmen dragged out of a building in Lashkar Gah by Afghan troops and displayed in the street. Two of the dead gunmen wore police uniforms.

At a major conference in London on Thursday, Mr Karzai set the framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders when he called on the Islamist group's leadership to take part in a "loya jirga" – or large assembly of elders – to initiate peace talks.

The call came amidst a diplomatic push from Western powers involved in the Afghan conflict to make hard plans that would pave the way for them to begin withdrawing their troops.

Under Mr Karzai's proposal, the West would not be directly involved in peace talks. A separate plan backed by Washington and its allies would set up a fund to reintegrate Taliban fighters by luring them away from the insurgency with jobs and cash.

A Taliban spokesman declined to talk in detail about the President's plans and only said the militants would make a decision "soon" about his offer. "I cannot say a word regarding these peace talks. The Taliban leadership will soon decide whether to take part," the spokesman, who uses the name Qari Mohammad Yousuf, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The Taliban have said repeatedly that negotiations with the Afghan government can only take place when foreign troops completely withdraw from Afghanistan and have dismissed the reintegration plans as a "trick".

A big Pashtun tribe in east Afghanistan, the Shinwari, meanwhile, announced it would help the Afghan government in its efforts to fight the Taliban in return for construction projects for the community. The tribe's head, Malek Osman, said he would impose a fine on anyone in his district who worked with the Taliban, and urged one man of fighting age from each family to join the army or police.

The government in Kabul and its Western backers have increasingly signalled their hope for a negotiated end to the eight-year-old war. A UN official said the organisation's envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, had met representatives of the Taliban leadership in Dubai earlier this month. Mr Eide told the BBC yesterday that he would not reveal details of any meetings that might have happened.

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