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MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday voiced hope that a conference on Afghanistan taking place in Moscow could help pave the way for peace talks.
"The Moscow format of talks is aimed at establishing an inclusive inter-Afghan dialogue in the interests of advancing the process of national reconciliation," Lavrov said as he opened the meeting that has brought together representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban.
He emphasized the threat posed by the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, saying that it has relied on foreign sponsors in a bid to "turn Afghanistan into a springboard for its expansion in Central Asia."
The conference is Moscow's effort to get the Afghan authorities and the Taliban together at a table.
The U.S. Embassy has sent a diplomat to observe the discussions, and envoys from China, India, Pakistan and the ex-Soviet nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also attended the meeting.
Russia's first attempt to hold the meeting in September fell through after the Afghan authorities refused to attend. This time, the Afghan government hasn't sent its envoys, but several members of the government-appointed Peace Council are attending the event.
Taliban officials and Peace Council members have met at past forums elsewhere, and while no formal talks were ever held they have had some face-to face discussions.
The Taliban has refused direct talks with the Afghan government, which it views as a U.S. puppet, saying it will only negotiate the end of the 17-year war directly with Washington.
The group reaffirmed that position in Moscow, saying it would talk directly to the U.S. to demand its pullout from the country.
The U.S. State Department said Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, headed Thursday to Afghanistan and other countries in the region to meet with Afghan government officials and other interested parties to "advance the goal of an intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations that include the Taliban and lead to a sustainable peace."
Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, but Moscow has grown increasingly critical of U.S. actions as relations with Washington have soured, and is stepping up its own diplomatic outreach across the region.
Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.