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Taliban official reports meeting with Afghans

By Jason Straziuso
Associated Press / October 7, 2008
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KABUL, Afghanistan - A former Taliban ambassador said yesterday that the hard-line militants sat with Afghan officials and Saudi King Abdullah over an important religious meal in Saudi Arabia late last month as the insurgency raged back home.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, denied that the get-together could be construed as peace talks. But President Hamid Karzai has long called for negotiations with the Taliban, and the meeting could spur future initiatives.

With US and NATO forces suffering their deadliest year so far in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, said yesterday that the war "has to be won through political means."

"And that means political engagement. Then comes a question - with whom do you engage? My general answer is that if you want to have relevant results you must speak to those who are relevant," Eide said at a news conference. "But these are processes that are very difficult to initiate. Nevertheless, in my view a policy of engagement is the right policy."

A spokesman for Karzai's office declined to comment on the alleged meeting in Saudi Arabia.

But Zaeef said he was invited by Saudi King Abdullah to share Iftar - the meal that breaks the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Taliban representatives, Afghan government officials and a representative for powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were also at the meal, he said.

He said all parties talked socially with one another over the dinner but that they did not discuss any issue involving Afghanistan. It was not clear how many guests attended the dinner or where in Saudi Arabia it was held.

Zaeef, who spent almost four years in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said none of the representatives from the Taliban or Hekmatyar's group was authorized to carry out peace talks.

"This is not new; it's a kind of a guest celebration," Zaeef said, playing down the event's importance and implying that Abdullah hosts visitors all the time. Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi also said yesterday that there had been no peace talks.

Karzai last week said he has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia's king to facilitate talks with the Taliban. Karzai said Afghan officials have traveled to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in hopes of ending the country's now seven-year conflict but that so far there have been no negotiations.

Saudi Arabia is a leader of the Sunni Muslim world and the home of Islam's two holiest shrines, in Mecca and Medina. It was one of a handful of countries that recognized the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Even after the Taliban's ouster, Saudi Arabia kept doors open for Taliban members to make the annual hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage.

While Al Qaeda leader bin Laden, a Saudi, has frequently railed against the US-allied kingdom, his sympathizers among the Afghan Taliban have been muted in their criticism.

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