ISLAMABAD – A former Afghan Taliban minister who was among a powerful faction of the Taliban calling for direct talks with President Hamid Karzai's government was shot and killed Monday in Pakistan's northwest city of Peshawar, on the border with Afghanistan.
No one has claimed responsibility for the killing of Maulvi Abdul Raqeeb, who was Minister of Martyrs and Refugees during the Taliban's five-year rule that ended in 2001 when a U.S.-led coalition forced them from power as punishment for harboring Osama bin Laden.
His death comes as several powerful Taliban leaders, Raqeeb among them, have been meeting in the United Arab Emirates to launch peace talks with Karzai's High Peace Council in defiance of orders from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has thus far publicly refused direct talks with Karzai.
Aga Jan Mohtism, the former Taliban finance minister who cobbled together the group of senior Taliban ministers, along with several commanders and four former Taliban diplomats, told the Associated Press that an office will eventually be set up in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates and a negotiating committee will be formed to meet Karzai's representatives for formal talks.
Informal meetings have already been held between Mohtism and members of the High Peace Council, according to one council member who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, fearful that any public statements could hurt the fragile attempts at peace talks.
Mohtism is the former head of the Taliban's powerful political committee and once a close ally of Mullah Omar's. In 2010 Mohtism was shot in the Pakistani Arabian port city of Karachi and while no one took responsibility for the shooting suspicion fell on hard-line Taliban members who opposed his repeated calls for peace talks to end the protracted conflict in Afghanistan.
"Those who gathered in the UAE were important Taliban leaders. We are the biggest group. We have top military commanders and such personalities who even control two provinces. We are not disclosing their names now as they could face dangers," Mohtism told the AP in a recent interview.
This group is the largest collection of Taliban leaders to gather together since the failed attempt at peace talks in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar last June. Those talks ended before they could begin when the Taliban demanded their movement be recognized as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Karzai vehemently opposed the name saying it would be tantamount to the establishment of a government in exile.
The Dubai meetings are the first fresh Afghan initiated efforts to kick start a peace process aimed at bringing a negotiated end to the conflict ahead of the final withdrawal of international combat troops at the end of 2014.
"We will soon announce our specific address where we will be holding talks with any Afghan side," Mohtism said. "We will not talk with the foreigners in the first phase. We will hold dialogue with the foreigners after we reach an understanding with Afghans. We will nominate negotiators for talks."
Also on Monday a second member of Karzai's High Peace Council, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to discuss the talks in the media, told the AP that the council was ready to go to Dubai to hold official talks with Mohtism's group.
Mohtism told the AP that it was impossible to know whether Mullah Omar opposed or supported his peace efforts.
"But I can say that generally Mullah Omar has never disowned us. I am sure we have his support," said Mohtism.
So far the Taliban have refused to comment on the Dubai meetings despite repeated attempts by the AP to contact the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed.
However Mujahed did issue a statement Monday condemning the death of Raqeeb, calling him a martyr and his killing "a cowardly terrorist act."
"We have received the news with shock that the former Minister for Martyrs and Refugees of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate, Maulvi Abdul Raqeeb, has been martyred by coward enemy who was living as a refugee."
AP reporter Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report. Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon