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AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN

Afghan envoys, Taliban in Pakistan for peace talks, officials say

Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were in Pakistan for their first face-to-face talks, Afghan officials said Tuesday, signaling the possible start of negotiations to end nearly 14 years of conflict.

President Ashraf Ghani said on his official Twitter account that members of the government's High Peace Council had traveled to Pakistan for the meeting. A Pakistani official confirmed that the talks would take place near Islamabad but did not offer details.

The announcement marks a victory for Ghani, who has staked much of his young presidency on a high-stakes bid to engage Taliban insurgents and neighboring Pakistan in an elusive peace process.

It comes amid a wave of violence in Afghanistan, much of it blamed on the Taliban. The militants have mounted one of their fiercest offensives in recent months and inflicted heavy casualties on government forces as they attempt to take control of districts in northern and southern Afghanistan.

The impact of the talks on the violence was not immediately clear, but Pakistan's participation was seen as significant because the Taliban's leadership is based in that country and it has long been viewed in Afghanistan as an obstacle to peace.

Sources in Ghani's office described the meeting as crucial because it showed the Taliban were ready to negotiate directly with the government they have been battling since they were ousted from power by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have sent intermediaries, including former insurgents, to meet with Afghan officials over the last year in secret talks in Qatar and China. However, the location, public acknowledgment and face-to-face contact would be firsts for these talks.

Taliban officials did not immediately confirm their participation, but they have disavowed past meetings. The group has long said it would not negotiate directly with a government it views as a U.S.-backed puppet, but behind the scenes some Taliban leaders are believed to be seeking a truce that grants them a role in Afghan public life and a softening of U.S. and Western sanctions against them.

U.S. and Chinese officials would be present at the meetings in Pakistan to serve as "monitors," said an official in Ghani's office, who could not be quoted by name due to the sensitivity of the talks. Ghani was due to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to discuss the peace initiative this week at a regional summit in Russia, the official said.

Special correspondent Latifi reported from Kabul and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for news out of Afghanistan and Pakistan

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