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Pakistanis, Afghans Meet On Violence, Ponder Talks

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Political and ethnic-Pashtun tribal leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan have begun a two-day meeting to find ways to end surging militant violence including the possibility of opening talks with the Taliban.

The meeting, dubbed a Pakistan-Afghanistan "Jirgagai," or mini-jirga, is a follow-up to a grand assembly in Kabul last year in which delegates called for talks with Taliban militants to end bloodshed in both countries.

Since then, violence in Afghanistan has surged, raising doubts about prospects for the country and its Western-backed government seven years after the Taliban were forced from power.

In Pakistan, the security forces have launched offensives in the northwest and the militants have responded with suicide bombs. The violence has unnerved investors and exacerbated an economic crisis.

The violence has also strained relations between the neighbors, both important U.S. allies. Afghanistan has complained that Pakistan has not done enough to stop Taliban militants infiltrating from sanctuaries in its northwestern Pashtun lands.

A jirga, or traditional council, is a consultative system the proudly independent Pashtuns have used for more than 1,000 years to settle affairs of the nation or rally behind a cause.

Critics say the mini-jirga will be little more than a talking shop without the participation of Taliban representatives, but delegates said their aim was to prepare for talks.

"Our agenda is to have contacts with the opposition to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and to find their point of view and create an environment for dialogue," said Mohammad Ibrahim, a Pashtun member of a Pakistani religious party.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan say they are ready to talk to militants who lay down their arms.

The United States is wary of efforts to make peace with militants, saying short-lived Pakistani peace pacts over the past few years had only given the militants breathing space.

But U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said this month the United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban, but not with Al-Qaeda, if the Afghan government pursued talks.

Underscoring U.S. concern about the threat to Afghanistan from militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, a suspected U.S. drone fired into a Pakistani region on the Afghan border early on October 27, killing up to 20 militants.

'Door Open'

The Afghan government has taken a first step towards opening talks with the Taliban with a meeting in Saudi Arabia last month between a group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials.

Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the Afghan delegation, said President Hamid Karzai's government had always left the door open for talks.

"The even wider open today for those who accept the constitution of Afghanistan as the law of the country and also accept the principle of non-violence," he told the meeting.

"Hopefully our work here...will help us to expedite the process of dialogue and reconciliation," he said, while adding it was equally important to strengthen cooperation in dealing with terrorism.

Another Afghan member of the jirga, Faruq Wardak, also said the two sides had to coordinate military strategy.

"Those who want to fight, I think they are the common enemy of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have to coordinate our military strategy, fight them in a coordinated manner," Wardak told reporters.