Pakistan calls on Taliban to hold peace talks

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By SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan made its first public appeal Friday for the Taliban to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government, a potentially significant move given Islamabad's perceived influence over the militants.

The Pakistani prime minister was responding to a request made earlier this week by Afghanistan's president for Islamabad to support the peace process. Kabul wants Pakistan to push Taliban leaders believed to be based on its soil, including chief Mullah Omar, to make peace.

There are signs that momentum for peace talks has been growing, especially with the Taliban move to set up a political office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. But the group has said it would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan government.

This sentiment has reportedly triggered concern in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the neighboring countries could be sidelined in the peace talks. Both nations are likely doing all they can to remain central to the process.

"I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-e-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said.

The prime minister's statement was significant, but the country's powerful military and shadowy intelligence agency are seen as the ones with influence over the Taliban, not the civilian government.

Also, it's unclear whether the Taliban will listen. Pakistan helped the group seize power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, but the Taliban have always been difficult to control and there is a significant amount of distrust in the relationship.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks in Islamabad with Pakistan's civilian and military leaders about the peace process a week ago. He later issued a public statement saying Pakistan's support for talks with the Taliban would be "crucial."

Pakistan has always said it supports an Afghan-led peace process, but Karzai's recent visit exposed tensions that have long existed between the two countries.

During the visit, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said it would be "preposterous" for Afghanistan to expect Islamabad to deliver the Taliban's leader for talks.

Meanwhile, Karzai said there were "impediments" to the peace process that needed to be removed — a possible reference to Pakistan's lack of support to date.

The Afghan government has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary for the Taliban.

Pakistan has denied the allegation, but it is widely believed to have retained ties with the group because it could be a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of neighbor and archenemy India.

Pakistan has also been battling a domestic Taliban insurgency.

Taliban suicide bombers armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a large police station in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, killing four officers and wounding six in an assault meant to avenge the death of a militant commander in a U.S. drone strike.

Peshawar has been a frequent target of militant attacks over the last few years, but most have been bomb blasts, not coordinated assaults in the center of the city such as Friday's attack.

City police chief Imtiaz Altaf said three militants entered the compound after attacking the main gate, then blew themselves up when police returned fire.

There were more than 370 policemen at the station at the time, said provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain. The number of policemen was so high because authorities send graduates of the police training academy to the station for 18 months before stationing them at other posts.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told The Associated Press the attack was carried out by an affiliated group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.

Abu Zarar, a man who claimed to be a spokesman for the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, also told the AP that the group executed the attack. He said it was in response to the death of one of the group's commanders, Badar Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike on Feb. 9.

Mansoor served as a key link between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida. He led a group of over 200 Pakistani Taliban fighters in the North Waziristan tribal area, where he was killed.

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Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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