- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai acknowledged for the first time yesterday he has met with Taliban militants in attempts to bring peace to Afghanistan, which is struggling to quell a rising insurgency.

Mr. Karzai’s assertion — immediately rejected as false bay a Taliban spokesman — came as a suicide car bomber killed four persons and wounded four others in Kabul, and militants overran a district in the volatile southeast.

In the past, Mr. Karzai has offered, without success, to hold talks with the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Some officials in his government, including provincial governors, are thought to have held informal talks with militants in the south and east, but with little apparent success to calm the insurgency.

“We have had representatives from the Taliban meeting with different bodies of Afghan government for a long time,” Mr. Karzai told reporters. “I have had some Taliban coming to speak to me as well.”

Mr. Karzai did not disclose any details of the meetings, when they took place or who attended.

Hundreds of former members of the hard-line Taliban regime, including a sprinkling of former senior commanders and officials, have reconciled with the government since they were ousted from power in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Current rebel leaders have apparently refused to hold talks, and in the past year, thousands more fighters have picked up guns and joined the insurgency, which in 2006 alone left about 4,000 people, mainly militants, dead.

Zabiullah Mujaheed, a purported spokesman for the militants, said that Taliban “do not want to talk to a puppet government.”

“Karzai’s government has no power and all their policies are designed by America,” Mr. Mujaheed said by phone from an undisclosed location. “If the U.S. wants to negotiate with the Taliban, they should first leave our country.”

At the press conference, Mr. Karzai struck a conciliatory tone, urging Afghan militants to lay down weapons and join his government.

“Afghan Taliban are always welcome, they belong to this country. … They are the sons of this soil,” Mr. Karzai said. But he said that militants from neighboring countries such as Pakistan “should be destroyed.”

The Afghan leader often accuses Pakistan of not only providing sanctuary to Taliban, but guiding the rebels in an attempt to wield influence over Afghanistan — charges denied by President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

In the latest violence, a suicide car bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint in the west of Kabul after a policeman told the vehicle to stop. Five died, including the bomber, whom Mr. Mujaheed claimed was a Taliban militant.

On Thursday night, Taliban overran Khake Afghan district in the southeastern province of Zabul, forcing the police to flee, said Ali Kheil, a spokesman for Zabul’s governor. Authorities will try to retake the district center, still controlled by militants, he said.

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