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Afghanistan: Envoy Offers Qualified Support For Cease-Fire

A representative of Afghanistan's Taliban said the fundamentalist faction will agree to a cease-fire with the opposition Northern Alliance only under certain favorable but unspecified conditions. The reservations appear to be a setback for peace talks, which the Taliban have offered to hold under UN auspices.

Boston, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An envoy of Afghanistan's Taliban faction gave only qualified support Wednesday to the idea of a cease-fire as a way to open talks with the opposition Northern Alliance.

Speaking to reporters at Tufts University in Boston, the Taliban representative to the United States, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, said a cease-fire is a possibility as a prelude to negotiations with the opposition, but only under favorable terms.

"Sure. If a cease-fire is in the interest of my country, we will declare that," said Mujahid in response to a question from RFE/RL. A deputy later explained the remark by accusing the Northern Alliance of attacking the Taliban during a temporary cease-fire earlier this month following a United Nations request to allow a pause for polio vaccinations.

Suspicions on both sides seem to have led to a diplomatic standoff, despite a Taliban offer to a UN official on Saturday to hold talks without preconditions in an effort to end the country's long civil war.

On Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported that a senior spokesman for the opposition had rejected the Taliban offer as insincere, saying, "We are not sure if there is any change in their military program." The official charged that the Taliban's peace move was aimed only at gaining Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations and heading off a decision in the Security Council on further sanctions.

The offer of unconditional talks under UN auspices has been seen as one of the few recent signs of hope in a war that has left the Taliban in control of over 90 percent of Afghanistan, while rival forces stubbornly hang on and stage counterattacks. Mujahid charged that opposition leaders had refused to come to the bargaining table because "they are not allowed to make negotiations with us by their masters, Iran and Russia."

Mujahid spoke Wednesday at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy before an audience of some 300 students in an attempt to counter what he called "propaganda" against the fundamentalist Taliban. Questioners focused on issues of human rights, terrorism, the Taliban's haven for suspected Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden and drug traffic in the region. Most of the answers, although familiar, underscored the Taliban's increasing interest in improving its image and relations with the United States.

Mujahid blamed his country's troubles on Russia and media reporting, saying, "We in no way want to harm people of the United States and the government of the United States."

On the subject of bin Laden, he said the Taliban have seen no evidence that the suspected terrorist had a hand in the October 12 attack on the U.S. destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, which killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others on board. Mujahid said the Taliban had already taken away bin Laden's satellite phone and other communication links. The Taliban are ready either to put bin Laden on trial if sufficient evidence of terrorism is presented or to expel him to another country that will accept him, Mujahid said.

Despite repeated questions from Afghan women in the audience, Mujahid insisted that reports of repression were inaccurate and that "99 percent of women and men ... are happy with the government there in Afghanistan."

Mujahid denied accusations made by a U.S. State Department official last Friday at a UN-sponsored drug conference in Tashkent. Wendy Chamberlin told reporters at the meeting that hundreds of millions of dollars from narcotics "not only finances the war machine of the Taliban but also provides resources for the Taliban to pursue expansionist covert operations in South and Central Asia."

Mujahid strongly denied the charge, saying that the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had ordered a ban on cultivation of the opium poppy and that efforts were being made to eliminate it without outside help. The Taliban does not allow support from its territory for any fighters abroad, he said, adding that it would specially be barred from doing so under Islamic law once it had established treaty relations with other countries as a member of the United Nations.

He also frequently cited recent statements by Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov that the Taliban do not present a threat to Central Asia. But he dismissed as "propaganda" a statement by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who said in a speech Tuesday that "The main problem is Afghanistan, which is not only a source of extremism and terrorism but also a source of narcotics." Mujahid said he hoped for "brotherly relations" with all countries in the region in the future.