Far from the front line: the warring factions searching for peace

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Anywhere further removed from the bloodstained battlefields and mountain wildernesses of Afghanistan would be hard to imagine. Koenigswinter, across the river from the former German capital, Bonn, is a quietly prosperous river town that minds its own business.

Television satellite trucks may be lining its river bank and security troops in camouflage gear may be patrolling the riverside hotel, but the good burghers of Koenigswinter yesterday walked their dogs, enjoyed coffee and cakes in their cafés and took the riverside railway to work as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

But as 62 Afghans – 28 delegates, 10 alternate delegates and 24 advisers – and two senior UN officials assembled for their first rounds of negotiations on the future of Afghanistan, it was possible to agree that the opportunity, if not the outcome, was "historic".

Historic may turn out to be an exaggeration but this week's gathering will certainly be one of the more bizarre meetings the Petersberg castle has seen. For a start, the official "guest house" of the German government has had to be fitted with three prayer rooms for separate groups of Shia and Sunni Muslims and women. Meal times have been timed to comply with the requirements of the Ramadan fast, breakfast being served at 5am, the lunchtime buffet delayed until dusk and the six-course dinner till 10.30pm.

Two thousand bottles of mineral water have been shipped in, minibars emptied of liquor and stocked instead with green tea, although alcohol is – as the management put it – "discreetly available" to anyone who asks. Female hotel staff have been reminded to keep a low profile and wear long sleeves and ankle-length skirts to avoid offending their Muslim guests.

The housekeeping staff has even taken advice from the German Foreign Office on the etiquette involved in laundering robes and ironing turbans.

Everyone admitted to the Petersberg has submitted to a thorough background check and physical security is hermetic. German military helicopters hover overhead; the access road is blocked with a series of checkpoints and mounted police patrol 24 hours a day to prevent infiltration through the wooded slopes.

At 1.30pm yesterday, after two days of solid rain and heavy mist, the sun came out, turning the grey Rhine a crystal blue. At the same moment, the clouds parted to reveal the gleaming white castle of the Petersberg, sprawled across the forested hilltop far above. It was a magical scene, universally greeted as the best of omens.

From the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, who welcomed the participants, to the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who opened the meeting and chaired the talks, to the leaders of the four Afghan delegations who spoke next, all cited the epoch-making nature of the gathering, and pledged to place the interests of all Afghan people uppermost in their deliberations.

Seated with the suave Mr Brahimi around the enormous round table were individuals who did not just represent Afghanistan's main ethnic and political groups but seemed to embody its past and perhaps also its future.

Many delegates from the Northern Alliance were dressed in flowing robes and turbans, all sepia tones; the former king's delegation, hot-foot from Rome, were sharp-suited and urbane. Each seemed almost as out of place as the other in the ponderous, bourgeois comfort of the Rhineland. But they mingled before the opening session, appearing more at ease with each other than the fighting in Afghanistan or the history of their rivalries might suggest. Seated just behind them were the diplomatic observers from places as far flung as South Korea and Switzerland and also those representing the key players – the US, Russia and Iran. Behind the scenes these powers are attempting to nudge the factions towards the kind of interim solution they would hope to see, dangling as bait the prospect of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid.

"It is not like parents looking from nearby on what the children are doing" said a Swiss diplomat. "They are old enough to talk among themselves." That is the official line. But Mr Fischer made clear what the West expects. "Now is the time to make use of the combined efforts and strength of the international community to rebuild your country."

At dinner on Monday, hosted by the German Foreign Minister, the four delegations sat around different tables in the same room.

Yesterday, the delegates were persuaded to hold two plenary sessions of talks around the same table and were due to reconvene in the evening. The talking is in English – by the UN officials – and in the Afghan languages, Pashtu and Dari.

UN officials emerged almost ecstatic from the first plenary sessions. There was optimism the talks could even produce the most ambitious result: agreement on the composition of a small, interim administration and a larger (100-plus) interim council that would function as a temporary parliament.

According to this scenario, these two bodies could be agreed in principle at Bonn, then ratified at a follow-up meeting in Kabul within a couple of weeks. The Muslim new year, which falls in March, is the preferred deadline for the holding of a first loya jirga, or tribal assembly, at which a longer-lived (two-year), but still temporary, administration could be approved.

This would be charged with formulating a constitution for Afghanistan – to include the right of women to an education, to work and to vote – and, within two years or so, cede power to a permanent government and national council. How close the Bonn meeting comes to agreeing the first stage of such an arrangement will be the gauge of its success. In a stage-managed intervention, one of the men tipped as a future Afghan leader made a telephoned appeal to the delegates as they began work yesterday morning.

Hamid Karzai, a Pashton leader who supports the former king, Zahir Shah, rangfrom Kabul to describe the gathering as "a path towards salvation" and to call for a new beginning. "We have been made extremely poor and vulnerable," he was quoted as saying, "but we are a strong people who would like to assert our will and sense of self-determination."

His phone call was clearly intended to compensate for the fact that the Pashtuns inside Afghanistan are not separately represented in Bonn.

The other group conspicuously unrepresented is Afghanistan's women. Campaigners on their behalf staged a colourful demonstration outside the river boat that is serving as the headquarters of the UN's media operation.

A UN spokesman said that it was the delegation leaders who had decided who would attend the conference and that there were women – albeit only three full delegates, and three advisers – taking part. Asked if the women might be granted a phone call, amplified around the conference hall, the spokesman laughed and said "No".