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UN: Afghanistan's Warring Sides Agree On New Peace Initiative

Against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan's warring sides have agreed in writing to begin a new dialogue for a political settlement. A United Nations special envoy will be the main go-between in the talks. The envoy stresses that the support of Afghanistan's neighbors in this process will be crucial.

United Nations, 6 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and the opposition United Front have agreed to a peace process aimed at ending their long civil war "in the shortest possible time."

UN Special Representative Francesc Vendrell on Friday showed reporters separate letters signed by representatives of the two sides committing them to a political settlement of the conflict. He read from a statement which was endorsed by both sides.

"The two sides undertake to participate in the dialogue with serious intent and in good faith and not to abandon the process unilaterally but rather to pursue it without interruption until the negotiating agenda, to be agreed by the two sides, is exhausted."

Vendrell will be the primary UN mediator. He said the principal negotiators from each side will be MullahAmir Khan Muttaqi, who is the Taliban's minister of education, and Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which is still recognized at the United Nations and represents the United Front.

Vendrell was in New York to brief the UN Security Council on the new developments. He also attended late Friday a meeting of the "Six-plus-Two" group, which includes Council members Russia, the United States and China, along with Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors -- Tajikistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The group released a statement afterward welcoming the written agreement between the warring sides to hold talks, and stressed there can be no military solution to the Afghan dispute. The endorsement of the peace process by this regional group is important, as a number of these countries have contributed arms and other aid to the warring sides.

Vendrell said the process will be a very long and difficult discussion between two sides, who have built up distrust through years of war and failed peace initiatives. He said he will begin shuttling between the two sides this month to push for them to agree on a substantive agenda for talks.

He said the first face-to-face meeting of negotiators may be held toward the end of this month, just prior to the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.

Vendrell said he hopes a gradual series of talks will build confidence and generate support inside Afghanistan for the peace process.

"We need to ensure that we develop a dynamic inside this process and also a dynamic inside the population in Afghanistan. They need to feel that something is happening. They are in such a state of hopelessness."

The agreement comes following a revival of heavy fighting in the past three months in northern Afghanistan, where the United Front holds the remaining 5 percent of the country not yet under Taliban control. The fighting has created a surge in refugees and displaced people in a country that has already seen millions lose their homes over 20 years of war.

Humanitarian agencies have been appealing for months for aid to help Afghans cope with the worst drought in more than 30 years. The UN's humanitarian coordinator, Eric de Mul, told reporters on Friday that tens of thousands of Afghans face starvation this winter because of the double impact of the drought and war. He said the United Nations was trying to mobilize the major relief groups based in New York, Geneva, and Islamabad to address the looming crisis.

"The vulnerability of the Afghan population is at such levels that there is a danger that if we cannot speed up and cannot do more that we may have fairly large groups of Afghans in a situation of starvation during the winter." Further complicating the situation are Security Council sanctions against the Taliban regime. The sanctions are aimed at forcing the Taliban to turn over for extradition accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, as well as ending human rights abuses of women and curbing the heavy drugs trade. Russia and the United States have been discussing strengthening sanctions in response to concerns that both countries have about Afghanistan exporting terrorism.

Vendrell said on Friday that key issues that he plans to address in the talks will be establishing a means to legitimize a ruling Afghan authority and improving human rights, especially in regard to women.