Talks begin on Afghan transitional government

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The first delegates to next week's talks on the future of Afghanistan set off for Bonn, Germany, yesterday amid disagreements about the prospects for success. The talks, sponsored by the United Nations, will be chaired by the top UN envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is Algerian. The purpose of the meeting is to form an interim council to run Afghanistan until a transitional government can be formed.

The first apparent setback – a one-day delay in the start of the talks – could in fact be an early harbinger of success, as it testified to the seriousness with which the participants were approaching the meeting.

A further glimmer of hope came with the statement by the former president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is also nominal leader of the Northern Alliance, that he would relinquish any claim to power if the Bonn talks reached a consensus on a transitional leader.

Between 20 and 30 Afghans are to attend the meeting, representing the main political and ethnic groupings inside and outside Afghanistan. As well as the Northern Alliance, whose delegation is expected to be led by its urbane acting foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, there will be three other main groups. One will be made up of supporters of the exiled King, Mohammad Zahir Shah – a delegation that the King's grandson announced would include two women.

The Bonn talks have been organised as a purely Afghan-UN exchange. But representatives of third countries, such as Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran, are already lobbying from the sidelines. Clear divisions have already emerged between Iran, Russia and India, on the one hand, which back the mainly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, and Pakistan, on the other, which backs the Pushtuns inside and outside Afghanistan.

Francesc Vendrell, the UN envoy in Kabul, warned that tribal disagreements could hamper the talks in Bonn. But Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, expressed optimism: "I am confident that there is a real chance of a government of national unity emerging from this process."