Afghan leaders told 'accept responsibility'

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The Independent Online

UN-sponsored talks that could bring eventual peace to Afghanistan, or plunge the country into new civil strife, were due to start this morning at the Petersberg, a fortress turned hotel, near the former German capital, Bonn. In an 11th-hour appeal, the United Nations called on Afghan leaders to accept responsibility for the future of their country and warned of the heavy burden they would carry if they let this opportunity slip.

Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the UN special envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said: "If we fail then the leaders will have to shoulder their responsibilities, and the international community, organisations and UN systems that are standing by to help are going to be very disappointed."

The sober eve-of-conference tone was moderated, however, by the fact the talks were happening at all.

As recently as a week ago, few would have given the UN much chance of assembling representatives of the main groups with a stake in the country. But by yesterday evening, all four expected delegations were in place.

Last to arrive were the 11 delegates from the Northern Alliance, the loose and fractious assembly of tribal leaders, who now hold power in all but the Taliban's heartland in the south-east of the country. The delegation was due to have bilateral meetings with Mr Brahimi, last night to finalise the last details of procedure and the agenda. Mr Brahimi met members of the other delegations earlier in the day.

This group, as the only one to come from inside Afghanistan, faced the most hazardous journey, and the fact that its military position was so dominant led some to doubt they would bother to take part. Their presence was therefore greeted as a good omen. They had flown to Oman in an RAF plane from Bagram airport near Kabul, which is secured by British Marines, and then continued their journey by commercial flight.

The Northern Alliance and the delegation representing supporters of the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, both have 11 people. There are also two smaller delegations of five each; one representing the mainly Pushtun Pakistan-based exiles, and the other the Cyprus-based mainly ethnic Hazara émigrés. Each group has brought a team of advisers of almost as many people again.

With concern expressed in some quarters that the delegations lack senior figures, and therefore the authority to negotiate an agreement that will stick, Mr Fawzi said "it was the best we could do in the circumstances" and insisted the UN was "very satisfied" with the level of participation.

As well as the four Afghan delegations, 18 countries and the European Union, have requested accreditation to the talks. The United Nations was at pains to stress yesterday that the talks would be a purely Afghan affair, but the outside representatives will have access to the delegations and will also be admitted to the opening session.