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Afghanistan: Anti-Taliban Leader Seeks Support During First Trip To Europe

Afghan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood met today with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in Paris in an effort to seek Western support for his forces' battle against the ruling Taliban militia. Tomorrow, Masood is scheduled to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Taliban has condemned Masood's trip, which comes after the militia infuriated the international community last month by destroying two giant Buddha statues widely considered part of the world's cultural heritage. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the armed resistance to Afghanistan's Taliban ruling militia, Ahmad Shah Masood, started today a landmark visit to France that will be watched for signs of a change of attitude in the international community towards the Kabul regime.

Masood began by meeting with Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and Cooperation Minister Charles Josselin. The three men spent an hour together behind closed doors. No comment was made on what was discussed.

Speaking later to reporters, Masood, who tomorrow will address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, said he expects Western countries to press for a peaceful solution to the six-year-old Afghan civil war.

"We expect Europe to take steps to ensure peace in Afghanistan."

The military leader also called upon the international community, particularly the United States, to urge Pakistan to stop involving itself in Afghanistan's domestic affairs. Although it has always denied supporting the Taliban, Pakistan is widely seen as the main force behind the religious militia.

The Taliban, which has criticized Masood's visit to Paris, is seeking broad international recognition. But only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have established diplomatic relations with the militia, which has been widely condemned for its harsh treatment of women and poor human rights record.

An ethnic Tajik in his early fifties, Masood first took up arms in an attempt to create an Islamic republic in the mid-1970s to undermine the government of President Sardar Mohammad Daud.

After a few years spent in Pakistan, Masood returned to his birthplace in the Panjsher Valley, north of Kabul, first to fight Daud's communist successors and then the Soviet troops that invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Dubbed the "Lion of Panjsher," Masood gained the reputation of an unbeatable field commander and a master of guerrilla warfare.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the collapse of the Moscow-backed communist regime in Kabul, Masood was appointed defense minister under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. In 1992 he took over Kabul and defended the Afghan capital against the attacks of another Mujaheddin leader and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar.

Since the ethnic Pashtun Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Masood has been leading the resistance against the religious militia as commander of the so-called Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Shiite Muslim Hazara field commanders.

Masood made no secret today that he discussed possible military aid for his embattled army, which has recently suffered a series of setbacks and now controls only a tiny portion of northern Afghanistan.

Asked whether he thinks France and other European countries should provide military support to the Northern Alliance, Masood said:

"It is up to European leaders and officials to decide. Do they want to support the just cause of the Afghan people or do they want to satisfy themselves only with empty words and to just stand by and watch?"

Dr. Abdullah, the foreign minister of the internationally recognized government of former President Rabbani, met with French officials in Paris last month (21 March). Both sides reportedly discussed political, humanitarian, and military issues, but no details of the talks were released.

A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL yesterday that Masood's visit is taking place "within the framework of France's balanced policy of keeping contact with all parties involved in the Afghan conflict."

The French government has been recently criticized at home for seeking contacts with Afghanistan's rulers. Several Taliban officials have been received by French officials over the past year.

Taliban Public Health Minister Mullah Mohammad Abbas visited Paris in early February amid protests from human rights organizations which said the Taliban are denying Afghan women access to medical care.

Masood's visit comes just weeks after the Taliban infuriated the international community by ignoring pleas not to destroy two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province. The two statues, which dated back to the third century, were widely considered part of the world's cultural heritage.

Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar justified the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and other pre-Islamic statues in the country by saying that they were offensive to Islam.

The international community has also expressed growing concern recently about the fate of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who have been driven from their homes by the civil war and now live in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Masood said today that the Taliban's coercive policy is making the militia increasingly unpopular in Afghanistan, even among the Pashtun community.

"There is an area close to Pakistan, the Kunar Province, where 90 percent of the inhabitants are Pashtuns. We have our friends there. Within seven to 10 days you will witness a major insurrection [against the Taliban] in this area."

In a statement released on Monday (2 April), the president of the European parliament, Nicole Fontaine, described the Taliban as a "shameful and criminal regime."

Fontaine also called on the international community to exert pressure on the Taliban and its Pakistani and Saudi allies "to return to standards of behavior which are in keeping with universal human rights and are worthy of the long centuries of Afghan civilization."

Speaking today to reporters, Fontaine said she hopes Masood's Paris talks "will bring the international community beyond the stage of verbal condemnation" of the Taliban regime.

She added: "democratic nations should clearly show that they do not tolerate the existence of a political system that denies the most elementary rights of human beings."

Before leaving for Strasbourg, Masood is due to hold talks with Christian Poncelet, the speaker of the Senate, the upper chamber of the French parliament.

He will also meet with representatives of the Afghan diaspora.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)