Afghan group confirms talks with Taliban faction

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council has held meetings with a breakaway faction of senior Taliban leaders in the United Arab Emirates, officials said Saturday.

The Dubai meetings are the first, fresh Afghan-initiated efforts to restart peace talks aimed at bringing a negotiated end to the conflict ahead of the final withdrawal of international combat troops due at the end of this year. But they also reflect deepening divisions among Taliban leadership.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar publicly has refused direct talks with Karzai, and the Taliban has denied links to the faction in Dubai, cobbled together by former Taliban Finance Minister Aga Jan Mohtism.

The High Peace Council said in a statement Saturday that the delegation it met with clearly had indicated they were ready for peace talks and that both sides agreed on the need for further dialogue — both inside and outside of Afghanistan.

"Both sides agreed that they will continue to have these sort of talks and also both sides wish for a good outcome from the meetings," the statement said, adding that discussions had focused on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

While the High Peace Council did not say who was represented in each delegation, Mohtisim confirmed his group's participation in a statement issued to The Associated Press.

Mohtism said that recent talks in Dubai among Taliban leadership had resulted in a consensus and willingness to end the conflict through an intra-Afghan dialogue, which resulted in the recent meeting with a delegation from Karzai's High Peace Council.

That meeting was held in an "atmosphere of peace and sincerity and with due determination towards an everlasting peace and establishing an Islamic system," he said. "Both sides in the said meeting agreed to analyze all dimensions of the issue deeply and to find a permanent solution instead of working on interim formats of the solution."

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 while in the Pakistani Arabian port city of Karachi. Though 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.

His breakaway faction is made up of senior Taliban ministers, commanders and former Taliban diplomats. It represents the largest gathering of Taliban leaders since failed peace talks in Qatar last June, which broke down before they started when the Taliban demanded their movement be recognized as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

In an apparent reflection of a deepening divide with Mullah Omar, Mohtism's statement was issued under the banner of the Islamic Movement of Taliban.

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Kathy Gannon, AP's special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan, reported from Islamabad and can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kathygannon.

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