KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. and Taliban officials decided on Saturday to put their ongoing peace talks on hold for two days to allow for a meeting between rival Afghan groups to be held in Qatar, Taliban and U.S. officials said.
The warring sides started a seventh round of peace talks last week, aiming to hammer out a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for Taliban guarantees that international militant groups will not use Afghanistan as a base for launching attacks.
The U.S. peace envoy leading talks with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan said the latest round of discussions were the “most productive session” to date.
In a tweet, Zalmay Khalilzad said substantive progress had been made on all four parts of a peace deal: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, participation in intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
“There is still important work left to be done before we have an agreement,” he said, adding the ongoing peace talks will resume on July 9 after the intra-Afghan dialogue.
An agreement on the timetable has been elusive so far, but in a sign of progress the Taliban agreed on the sidelines of the peace talks to hold separate discussions with a group of Afghan delegates.
U.S. officials are demanding a ceasefire agreement and on direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government before a peace deal is finalised.
Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar’s capital, Doha, said the U.S.-Taliban dialogue would resume after the two-day intra-Afghan conference.
A previously planned meeting between Afghan representatives in April collapsed before it started amid disagreement over the size of the proposed 250-strong Afghan delegation as well as over its status as a representative body.
This time, about 40 high-profile Afghan figures and activists will fly to Doha but will not have any official status — a condition made necessary by the Taliban’s refusal to deal directly with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
A senior Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ensuring the protection of the rights of women and minorities would be discussed in the Doha talks, which have been facilitated by German and Qatari officials.
Despite intensified diplomatic efforts to end the 18-year long war in Afghanistan, deadly violence has surged across the country.
Last week, the Taliban claimed a truck bomb attack in Kabul that killed six people and wounded 105 civilians, many of them children.
Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain in Kabul and Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar; Editing by Helen Popper