Afghan president says he met with Taliban militants
Tells of peace try as bomber kills 4
KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai acknowledged for the first time yesterday that he has met with Taliban militants in attempts to bring peace to Afghanistan, which is struggling to quell a rising insurgency.
Karzai's assertion, immediately rejected as false by a Taliban spokesman, came as a suicide car bomber killed four people and wounded four others in Kabul, and militants overran a district in the volatile southeast.
In the past, Karzai has offered, without success, to hold talks with the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar and renegade warlord Gulbudin 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," Karzai told a news conference. "I have had some Taliban coming to speak to me as well."
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 smattering of former senior commanders and officials, have reconciled with the government since they were ousted from power in the US-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 some 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," Mujaheed said by phone from an undisclosed location. "If the US wants to negotiate with the Taliban, they should first leave our country."
Speaking at the news conference, Karzai, whose administration is increasingly unpopular because of insecurity in the south and east and continuing poverty, 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," Karzai said. "As they repent, as they regret, as they want to come back to their own country, they are welcome."
But he said that militants from neighboring countries such as Pakistan "should be destroyed."
"They are destroying our lives, killing our people, they are not welcome and there will be no talks with them," Karzai said.
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 Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in its war on terrorism.
In the latest violence, a suicide car bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint in the west of Kabul after a police officer told the vehicle to stop. Five died, including the bomber, whom Mujaheed said was a Taliban militant.
At least four civilians were wounded in the attack, police said. Pieces of the vehicle were strewn around the road leading toward Afghanistan's parliament, which was closed.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to Reuters and vowed to stage more. The report could not be independently verified, but remnants of the former Taliban regime have been blamed for previous such attacks.
"Six of our countrymen were martyred in this incident," Karzai said after the explosion.
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.
Also Thursday, militants killed five Afghan security guards protecting a road construction project, and wounded four others in Zabul's Mizan district, Kheil said.
More than 750 people have died due to insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on numbers from US, NATO, and Afghan officials. The militants are increasingly resorting to suicide bombings, a tactic widely used in Iraq.
US and NATO troops are preparing for an expected spring offensive by militants, and international forces have stepped up their patrols in southern Afghanistan.
Karzai yesterday defended last month's release by Afghan authorities of five Taliban militants in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, saying the case was threatening the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy. However, he ruled out further prisoner swaps.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, of the Italian daily La Repubblica, along with an Afghan translator and a driver, were kidnapped in southern Helmand province on March 5. The driver was beheaded and the translator, Ajmal Nashqbandi, is still being held.
The prisoner swap that secured Mastrogiacomo's freedom on March 19 has been criticized by Afghan lawmakers and foreigners working in Afghanistan as an incentive for more militant kidnappings.