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Karzai Appeals To Taliban To Lay Down Arms

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
(RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he would try his best to reach out to the Taliban leadership under a new peace plan aimed at luring militants away from violence.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul today, Karzai also said that U.S. and NATO forces would be in his country until the terrorists and extremists are defeated.

"The Taliban are welcome to return to their own country and work for peace in order for us to be able then to have the U.S. and other forces have the freedom to go back home," Karzai said.

"We, as Afghans, are trying our best to reach as high as possible to bring peace and security to Afghanistan."

Karzai's remarks come after officials from some 70 countries endorsed in London an Afghan peace plan to provide jobs, protection, and vocational training for Taliban fighters who are ready to renounce violence and join mainstream life. The project will be funded with $140 million in pledges in the first year.

The Taliban have rejected Karzai's peace call and vowed to continue their war against his government and troops stationed in the country until the complete withdrawal of the foreign forces.

Speaking for the first time since returning from the London conference, Karzai said Al-Qaeda operatives were excluded from the scheme.

Karzai also said his government would establish a "Supreme Council for Peace and Reconciliation" to lead the new program.

He said the government would also call a loya jirga, or a grand assembly of elders, soon to discuss prospects of peace in Afghanistan.

Ahead of an expected trip to Saudi Arabia next week, Karzai said the role for that country "we are seeking is not only for talks with the Taliban. It's a broader vision; it's a broader role that we are seeking, which is for peace-building in Afghanistan, for improved relations with our neighbors, and for reconstruction and assistance for Afghanistan."

Saudi Arabia has offered to help facilitate talks with the Taliban provided that the militants stop giving sanctuary to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

No Negotiating Human Rights

Also today, the deputy head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said his group supported peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but under certain conditions.

But Farid Hakimmy told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the peace negotiations "must not affect our efforts for obtaining basic human rights, rights of women, freedom of press, and establishment of civil society."

Hakimmy added that "any development/agreement in this regard must respect and abide by international codes and regulations of human rights."

Hakimmy insisted that any plan for peace talks should be drafted transparently and must not provide war criminals and human rights violators with any sense of impunity.

Reports Of Mehsud's Death

Meanwhile in neighboring Pakistan, state television reported that the country's Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, had been killed and buried -- without giving any sources.

The Pakistani Army, which is battling Taliban militants fighting to topple the government, said it could not confirm the death, while Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq dismissed the reports.

The Associated Press news agency quoted an unidentified tribal elder as saying today that he had attended Mehsud's funeral in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai on January 28.

And the Reuters news agency quoted unidentified Pakistani intelligence officials as saying they had received unconfirmed reports that Mehsud may have died of wounds sustained when a drone fired on two vehicles carrying militants in North Waziristan on January 17.

Reports of Mehsud's death emerged after a drone strike on January 14.

The Pakistani Taliban's former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a U.S. drone attack in August 2009.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report. With news agency reporting