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Pakistan says it has hosted a round of Kabul-Taliban talks

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan confirmed on Wednesday that it hosted a round of peace talks between Afghan government officials and the Taliban the previous day, and that another round is planned for after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad said the one-day talks ended with both sides agreeing to meet again. Tuesday’s talks took place at Murree, a hilly resort near the Pakistani capital. Representatives of China and the United States were also present during the meeting, the statement said.

The participants exchanged views on ways to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan, where fighting has continued since the Taliban were removed from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Since taking office in September, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made it a priority to find a peace settlement.

Both sides “expressed their collective desire to bring peace to Afghanistan and the region,” the ministry statement said. The next meeting would be held at a mutually convenient date after Ramadan ends later this month, it added.

The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the peace talks, praising Pakistan for hosting them and thanking Washington and China for taking part. “We believe that if there is a good and strong intention in the peace process, there will be good results,” Kabul said Wednesday.

The talks came after repeated informal meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives, most recently in Qatar and Norway. The fact that Tuesday’s talks were the first formally acknowledged by the Afghan government and the semi-public nature of the talks suggested possible progress, after years of frustration in trying to bring the two sides together.

Previous efforts to start a dialogue stalled, however, largely due the lack of trust and confidence between the two sides.

Also, there have been differences among the Taliban over the talks in the past. It was not clear whether the Taliban representatives who attended the Pakistan meeting had a go ahead from their supreme leader, Mullah Omar, or the insurgents’ political office in Qatar, specifically set up with the goal toward a peace deal.

A Taliban statement emailed to media in Kabul by the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not provide clarity whether the talks have been fully endorsed by the Taliban leadership.

“Our political office has complete authority and capability … to hold or suspend talks whenever or wherever it wants,” Mujahid said.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday night described the holding of the talks as “a major breakthrough.” His comments were recorded for Pakistani TV from the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where he is on a three-day visit.

“I hope there will be a positive outcome which will certainly be very helpful for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Sharif said.

Earlier Tuesday, Ghani’s office announced that a delegation from the government’s High Peace Council traveled to Islamabad for the talks. Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai was reported to be among the government representatives.

Ghani said the talks aim to “change this meeting into a process of continuing talks,” build trust and develop the agenda for the negotiations, according to his office.

The Afghan president has sought Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.

But some Afghan politicians have been suspicious of Pakistan’s hosting of the talks, considering it interference in Afghan affairs. Nasrullah Sadieqizada, an Afghan parliament member, denounced the talks “Pakistani propaganda.”

The White House praised the Pakistani government for helping facilitate the meeting.

“This is an important step in advancing prospects for a credible peace,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “The United States commends the government of Afghanistan’s prioritization of peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.”

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Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

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