Karzai welcomes talks with Taliban

The Baltimore Sun

KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai said for the first time yesterday that he had held meetings with members of the Taliban as part of a reconciliation effort, but he ruled out talks with the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, or foreign militants who are fighting along with the Taliban.

He made the comments as the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the capital that killed six people, and as NATO battled Taliban forces for control of an important town in southern Afghanistan.

"We've had representatives from the Taliban meeting with the different bodies of the Afghan government for a long time," Karzai told journalists at a news conference at the presidential palace yesterday. Karzai set up a reconciliation commission in 2005 to woo Taliban members over to the government, but it has had limited success.

"Afghan Taliban are the sons of this soil," he said. "As they repent, as they regret, as they want to come back to their own country, they are welcome."

"About Mr. Mullah Omar, that's a different issue," he said. "The foreign Taliban are not welcome. ... They are destroying our lives, killing our people."

Karzai also ruled out making any further concessions to Taliban kidnappers. He said he had freed five members of the Taliban in exchange for the freedom of an Italian journalist because of the Italian government, which has 1,800 troops in Afghanistan. "The Italian prime minister called me several times and asked for cooperation from our side," Karzai said. "The Italian government was facing collapse."

Karzai has been criticized over the deal, and there has been a rash of kidnappings since it took place.

Karzai said he would not repeat such a prisoner exchange. "No more deals, with no one and with no other country," he said.

NATO said yesterday that it had taken control of the strategic town of Sangin, in southern Helmand province, from Taliban forces. The town had been in Taliban hands for months, despite the nearby presence of NATO and Afghan bases.

Sangin lies on the road to the Kajaki dam, the main source of electricity to southern Afghanistan. The U.S. government is planning $10 million in renovations to the dam, but the strong presence of Taliban forces in the region has prevented work for over a year.

NATO forces began an airborne assault on the town on Wednesday night, mobilizing 1,000 NATO and Afghan forces. It secured the town yesterday morning, the military said in a statement. Residents said the town center was badly damaged from two weeks of bombardment by NATO forces, and tribal elders eventually persuaded the Taliban to pull out.

"The elders begged the Taliban to evacuate the territory," said Izatullah, a shopkeeper in Sangin who was contacted by telephone. He said the elders were mediating between the Taliban and British forces to negotiate a long-term truce.

The suicide car bombing in southwestern Kabul yesterday morning killed six people, including a police officer who was trying to stop the bomber. The commander of a nearby police station, Wazir Agha, ordered a taxi driving slowly down a main street to halt. As he opened the door, the car exploded, throwing his body across the street.

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