- Associated Press - Sunday, June 12, 2011

KABUL, AfghanistanPakistan has agreed to target the hide-outs of Taliban fighters and other insurgents who attack neighboring Afghanistan and refuse to take part in faltering peace talks, Afghan officials said Sunday.

Many of the Taliban’s key leaders are thought to be hiding in Pakistan, and the threat of military strikes could be used to pressure fighters to negotiate. Still, how strong Pakistan will go after the Taliban remains in question, and there was no immediate confirmation of the agreement from the Pakistani government.

Taliban fighters and other groups have long used Pakistan’s tribal areas to launch attacks on NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, a point of contention between the two nations.

“The message is that people who want to take part in the peace process should have the way cleared for them,” said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, secretary of a peace council set up by Afghanistan’s president. “To those that think war is the only means to reach their goals, there should not be a hide-out for them to continue their war.”

Stanekzai and other Afghan officials spoke to journalists Sunday after Afghan President Hamid Karzai returned from a visit to Pakistan’s capital. CIA Director Leon Panetta also spoke separately with senior Pakistani officials about intelligence sharing and efforts to reconcile with the Taliban.

A four-page statement signed by Pakistani and Afghan officials dated Saturday gave no details about the proposed strikes, though Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has promised to help with the peace process in any way that Afghanistan sees fit.

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said that Pakistan’s government has “influence” over some Taliban that could be used to draw them into the so-far faltering peace negotiations. So far, there have been no substantive talks with any insurgent groups.

The push for peace talks come as fighting in Afghanistan intensifies, with the Taliban and other groups increasingly using roadside bombs and suicide attacks against civilians. May was the deadliest month for civilians since 2007, when the United Nations began keeping detailed records on casualties, the world body said Saturday.

On Saturday, a NATO-Afghan force launched an assault against Taliban fighters in the western province of Badghis, killing 32 insurgents, including three senior commanders, said Najibullah Najibi, a spokesman for the local corps commander. Taliban fighters used machine guns and mortars against the combined force in a mountainous region of Qadis district, Najibi said. Four Afghan soldiers died in the attack, and two others were wounded.

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to start withdrawing American troops in July if conditions allow. NATO forces plan to leave the country by the end of 2014.

A plan to gradually transition control of seven parts of the country to Afghan control will begin next month, Karzai’s office said in a statement. The country’s National Security Council met Sunday and received word that transition process “will be finalized in the coming three weeks,” a statement said.

Ashraf Ghani, the man in charge of drafting the transition plan, also told the council that after that period “the process will be officially started.”

The first phase of transition will start in the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district.

Afghan security forces already have assumed the responsibility for security in the greater Kabul area, which is home to about 5 million people — about one-fifth to one-quarter of the nation’s population.

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