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Pakistan calls on Taliban to participate in peace talks with Afghanistan

January 30, 2012: Taliban militants hand over their weapons after joining the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program, in Heart.Reuters

Pakistan made its first public appeal Friday for the Taliban to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government, a potentially significant move given Islamabad's perceived influence over the militants.

The Pakistani prime minister's call will be welcomed by Afghanistan and the United States, which have long demanded Islamabad push Taliban leaders believed to be based on its soil, including chief Mullah Omar, to the negotiating table.

But it's unclear just how much sway Pakistan has over the militants and what steps the country's shadowy intelligence agency, which is closest to the Taliban, is prepared to take to move the peace process forward.

"It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. "In this spirit, I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace."

Hizb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord whose ties to Pakistan date back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

There are signs that momentum for peace talks has been growing, especially with the Taliban's move to set up a political office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. But the group has said it would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan government.

This sentiment has reportedly triggered concern both in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the two countries could be sidelined in the peace talks.

The process has also been hobbled by distrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afghan government has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary for the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s with Islamabad's help.

Pakistan has denied the allegation, but it is widely believed to have retained ties with the group because it could be a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of neighbor and archenemy India.

However, the Taliban have always been difficult to control and there is a significant amount of distrust of Pakistan within the group.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled to Islamabad last week to discuss the peace process with Pakistan's senior civilian and military officials. He later issued a public statement saying it was "crucial" for Pakistan to support talks with the Taliban.

The Pakistani prime minister's comments Friday were made in response to Karzai's statement.

"We are mindful of the importance of ensuring that the processes of peace and reconciliation succeed and thus contribute to the welfare and well-being of the Afghan people," said Gilani.

However, tension between the two countries spilled into public view during Karzai's recent visit.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said it would be "preposterous" for Afghanistan to expect Islamabad to deliver the Taliban's leader for talks.

Meanwhile, Karzai said there were "impediments" to the peace process that needed to be removed -- a possible reference to Pakistan's lack of support to date.

Pakistan has also been battling its own domestic Taliban insurgency.

Taliban suicide bombers armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a large police station in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, killing four officers and wounding six in an assault meant to avenge the death of a militant commander in a U.S. drone strike.

Peshawar has been a frequent target of militant attacks over the last few years, but most have been bomb blasts, not coordinated assaults in the center of the city such as Friday's attack.

City police chief Imtiaz Altaf said three militants entered the compound after attacking the main gate, then blew themselves up when police returned fire.

There were more than 370 policemen at the station at the time, said provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain. The number of policemen was so high because authorities send graduates of the police training academy to the station for 18 months before stationing them at other posts.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told The Associated Press the attack was carried out by an affiliated group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.

Abu Zarar, a man who claimed to be a spokesman for the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, also told the AP that the group executed the attack. He said it was in response to the death of one of the group's commanders, Badar Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike on Feb. 9.

Mansoor served as a key link between the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. He led a group of over 200 Pakistani Taliban fighters in the North Waziristan tribal area, where he was killed.