(RFE/RL) -- President Hamid Karzai has met in the Afghan capital with a senior delegation from the militant Hizb-e Islami, one of the groups that have been fighting against central government and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, on possible paths to peace.
The meeting marks the first time that Hizb-e Islami -- which is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran fighter against Soviet occupation and civil-war-era prime minister -- has sent senior envoys to Kabul for talks.
It comes as Karzai's government tries to convince insurgent factions not linked to Al-Qaeda to lay down their weapons and join government rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan.
Hizb-e Islami has battled Afghan and international troops primarily in the eastern and northeastern part of the country.
Hekmatyar sent one of his deputies, another former prime minister, Qutbuddin Helal, to open negotiations with Karzai.
A spokesman for Hizb-e Islami, Harun Zarghun, said the five-member delegation presented a 15-point peace plan to Karzai that includes fresh presidential and parliamentary elections early next year and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan starting in June.
Zarghun called the peace proposal negotiable, and said the delegation would also meet with Taliban leaders somewhere in Afghanistan.
Karzai deputy spokesman Hamed Elmi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that "a delegation of Mr. Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami" had "discuss[ed] their peace plan and how to contribute to the peace process."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States is supportive of Kabul, but also cautious about the talks' chances of success.
"We do support the Afghan government's interest in reaching out to members of these insurgent groups. Our concern, shared by Afghanistan, is that they cease support for insurgents, live in accordance with the Afghan Constitution, renounce violence and have no ties to Al-Qaeda or terrorist organizations," Crowley said. "Any group that is willing to accede to those conditions can play a role in Afghanistan's future."
Position Of Strength?
The visit by the Hizb-e Islami delegation comes after its forces suffered a defeat in a battle with Taliban militants in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province earlier this month.
Hizb-e Islami fighters reportedly surrendered to nearby government forces after the villages they occupied were overrun by Taliban militants.
Hekmatyar has switched sides several times during 30 years of fighting in Afghanistan, and Hizb-e Islami has expressed common goals with the Taliban but has acted independently of the hard-line militia.
While Hekmatyar himself went into hiding after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, many of his party members joined Karzai's government and others hold seats in the national parliament.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer confirmed today's meeting took place but gave few details. He said talks with Hizb-e Islami could be expected to last days or even weeks.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied reports that U.S. representatives had met with Hizb-e Islami officials.
The United States is currently in the process of boosting its troop strength in Afghanistan by some 30,000 soldiers.
The additional troops are expected to join operations to clear Taliban and other militant forces from the southeastern part of Afghanistan, the Taliban's traditional stronghold.
U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council formally renewed its mission in Afghanistan today for another year to help Kabul with what it called "ownership and leadership" of the country.
The mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan now runs until March 23, 2011. Its tasks include supporting Kabul on restoring security, governance, and economic development, and regional cooperation.
written by Bruce Pannier based on RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and agency reports