Taliban close Qatar office to protest removal of flag

The Afghan Taliban have closed their office in the Gulf state of Qatar — at least temporarily — to protest the removal of a sign identifying the movement as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a diplomat and Taliban official said Tuesday.

The office, which opened less than a month ago to facilitate peace talks with the U.S. and Afghan governments, has also come under pressure for using the same white flag flown during the Taliban's five-year rule of Afghanistan that ended with the 2001 American-led invasion. Qatar removed the sign and flag last month after Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded they be taken down.

When the office opened in the Qatari capital of Doha in early June it was seen as the best hope of finding a political end to the protracted 12-year war in Afghanistan that unseated the Taliban and brought Karzai to power. But it was quickly mired in controversy when Karzai protested the name and accused the Taliban of using the occasion to set up a government in exile. Both the U.S. and Qatar quickly chastised the Taliban and accused them of reneging on a promise to refrain from using either the name or the flag.

Now the office itself has been temporarily closed, a Taliban official familiar with the talks in Qatar said.

"They (Taliban) do not go out of their homes in Doha and have not gone to the office since the removal of the flag and the plaque," the Taliban official said in a telephone interview. He said the Taliban blamed Karzai and the United States for the breakdown in talks, accusing both of using the name and the flag as an excuse.

A diplomat in the region who is also familiar with the negotiations said: "The (Taliban) Political Commission has stopped all international political meetings and is not using the office."

In Doha, the office remained guarded Tuesday by Qatari-appointed security along the outside walls. There were no signs of the flag or former sign. The gates to the compound were open, but there was no evidence of Taliban officials inside.

The two Taliban spokesmen at the Doha office did not respond to telephone calls by the Associated Press. The Taliban official said all communications with the movement's negotiators have been cut.

In a statement released Tuesday ahead of the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, Karzai called on the Taliban to embrace peace.

"On the occasion of the holy month of Ramadan, I once again call on Taliban, especially those Taliban who are sons of this homeland, to respect the holy month of Ramadan, to take the way of peace, compassion and kindness and to stop killing of people," the Pashtu-language statement read.

"After opening of the Qatar office, the Taliban would have known that neither their honor nor their flag is safe in foreign countries," Karzai said in his statement.