UN envoy meets insurgent group in Kabul

The UN envoy is the first Western diplomat to meet one of the country's main insurgent groups since they arrived in the capital for peace talks.

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KABUL // The UN envoy to Afghanistan met delegates from one of the country's main insurgent groups in Kabul today, the first Western diplomat to meet them since they arrived in the capital for peace talks with the government. Staffan de Mistura, the UN's new chief representative in Afghanistan, met a delegation from Hezb-i-Islami at a hotel in Kabul, the mission said. Hezb-i-Islami is one of three insurgent factions fighting against foreign troops in Afghanistan.

"(De Mistura) listened to their points and indicated that their visit in Kabul and the ongoing discussions with Afghan authorities further underscored the importance of Afghan-led dialogue in order to bring stability to this country," a statement from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said. A spokesman for Mr de Mistura declined to give any further details about what was discussed with Hezb-i-Islami.

It is the first known meeting between a Western official and the group since they arrived in Kabul, and comes weeks before president Hamid Karzai plans a peace "jirga" ? or council of elders ? to which the Taliban have been invited. Yesterday, Hezb-i-Islami negotiator Mohammad Daoud Abedi said its leadership was ready to make peace and act as a "bridge" to the Taliban if Washington fulfils plans to start pulling out troops next year.

Mr Abedi said the decision to present a peace plan was a direct response to a speech by the US president Barack Obama in December, when Mr Obama announced plans to deploy an extra 30,000 US troops but set a mid-2011 target to begin a withdrawal. Reaching out to insurgents, in particular the Taliban, which Nato regards as a much bigger threat than Hezb-i-Islami, is one of Mr Karzai's main priorities and has long had the backing of the United Nations.

Washington, while it supports plans to reintegrate low-level fighters back into Afghan society, has cautiously backed Afghan government efforts to reconcile with insurgents, provided they lay down their weapons and repudiate al Qa'eda. Hezb-i-Islami is based mainly in the east and north-east of Afghanistan. The Taliban are more active in their traditional southern heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand, where they are battling thousands of mainly US and British troops.