KABUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of Taliban fighters may abandon their insurgency in Afghanistan as a result of peace talks under way between local commanders and President Hamid Karzai's government, a provincial governor said on Saturday.
Three years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power for harboring al Qaeda, Karzai and his U.S. backers hope to coax lower-level Taliban fighters back to normal life, leaving senior commanders and al Qaeda leaders isolated.
Tribal chiefs are acting as intermediaries between the Taliban and Karzai's government in the southeastern provinces of Paktia, Khost and Paktika, said Paktia governor Assadullah Wafa.
"We have more than hundreds of Taliban who want to return to their normal lives," Wafa told Reuters.
In return, the tribal chiefs and local officials want the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, to urge U.S. forces not to harass Taliban members who quit the insurgency, he said.
"The government is talking to them through tribal chiefs and we are demanding Khalilzad use his influence and propose to the American military not to detain or harass those Taliban who plan to stop fighting the government," Wafa said.
But a government official said only those Taliban fighters who had not committed any crimes would be eligible for amnesty.
"Those Taliban whose hands are not stained in blood are welcome," said Khaliq Ahmad, of Karzai's office. But asked how many militants that might be, he said: "Not more than 100."
Wafa said a regional delegation had traveled to Kabul hoping to meet Khalilzad, but he was not in the capital. An embassy spokesman said Khalilzad had since left the country.
TALIBAN SAY WILL FIGHT ON
Senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah said the militants were holding no negotiations with either the Afghan or the U.S. government.
"This is a part of their strategy ... to spread rumors and try to divide and weaken their enemy," he told Reuters by satellite telephone. "But we will continue our struggle till the time when there is not a single foreign soldier on Afghan soil."
Leaders of mainstream opposition parties fear Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, wants to use the amnesty to strengthen his power base in the Pashtun and former Taliban heartlands in the south and southeast ahead of parliamentary elections due in April.
Wafa declined to identify any of the Taliban he said were willing to stop fighting, but said the group that he was in contact with consisted of both senior and ordinary members of the radical Islamic movement.
U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban government in late 2001 after it refused to hand over al Qaeda's leader Osama Bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities.
The Taliban and their Islamic allies are mostly active in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan near the rugged tribal areas along the Pakistan border.
Nearly 1,100 people including civilians, militants, aid workers, and foreign and Afghan troops have been killed in those regions since August 2003, mostly in Taliban-linked raids.
But militant activities have dropped off since Karzai was picked as the first directly elected president in October's elections and also because of the harsh Afghan winter.
- Article submitted at 1:19 PM (CST) on 1/15/2005
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