KABUL Afghanistan's former President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was chosen on Sunday to lead a council tasked with starting peace talks with Taliban-led insurgents, officials said.
A cleric like many of the Taliban, but an ethnic Tajik like many of their opponents, Rabbani has said in recent years that he has had contacts with some militants willing to consider negotiations.
He was once the leader of a powerful mujahideen party during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and served as president in the 1990s when mujahideen factions waged a war for control of power that ended with the Taliban's rise to power.
Rabbani subsequently became the political leader of the alliance of Afghan factions which, with the help of the United States, overthrew the largely Pashtun Taliban in 2001.
With the war entering its 10th year, President Hamid Karzai in June won approval from a tribal gathering to form a High Peace Council to start seeking a negotiated end to the conflict.
The 68-member council on Sunday chose Rabbani as its chairman, a senior official at Karzai's office earlier told Reuters.
"Now there is a need for Afghans to give hand to each other for consolidation of a lasting peace in Afghanistan," Rabbani was quoted as telling the council members in a statement issued by Karzai's press office after winning the seat.
Rabbani's first step for opening the way for talks will be establishing a working mechanism acceptable to other members of the Council, dominated by powerful former factional leaders, power brokers and some ex-Taliban members.
The insurgency is now at its bloodiest since 2001, despite the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, and there is a growing sense both at home and among many of Afghanistan's allies that talks may be the only route to peace.
Karzai had repeatedly said he wanted Taliban leaders to renounce violence and links with al Qaeda, accept Afghanistan's new constitution and surrender their arms.
But on Thursday, he said the government would not interfere in the council's efforts as it tries to start the talks.
Observers and the Taliban say Karzai's longstanding conditions imply a surrender for insurgents, which they are unlikely to accept as they gain strength around the country.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Ron Popeski)