Pakistan, Afghan seek militant dialogue

KABUL, Afghanistan – Working to soothe relations with neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan’s president said Sunday that a “particularly dark form” of terrorism confronts the region, while tribal leaders called for engaging in dialogue with the Taliban to confront extremism.Speaking at the close of a four-day meeting of tribal leaders meant to counter rising militant violence, Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Pakistan and Afghanistan face a great danger from fringe groups that preach hate and radicalism. He also admitted that Taliban fighters seek safe haven in Pakistan before crossing the border to launch attacks.

In eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. troops Sunday, the governor’s spokesman said, bringing to six the number of international forces killed over the weekend.

The tribal meeting’s closing statement said that a 50-man team of prominent leaders from both countries would hold regular meetings and work to “expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation with the opposition,” a reference to Taliban militants.

Musharraf, after landing back in Pakistan, said the committee should “engage warring forces in Afghanistan to bring the terrorism and extremism to an end.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the past has also encouraged dialogue with Taliban fighters to persuade them to support the government.

The White House has been working to broker what in the past has been a very public dispute between the Karzai and Musharraf, two of its close allies. The idea for the meeting, or jirga, came nearly a year ago during a meeting involving President Bush, Musharraf and Karzai.

Musharraf, who entered the grand, white tent with Karzai, said the two countries, as “true Muslims,” must isolate die-hard militants and “win the hearts and minds” of the people.

He called the close of the jirga a beginning to the peace process and not the end of it.

Washington fears al-Qaida is regrouping in the lawless tribal border region. Key tribal leaders from Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan boycotted the peace meeting, with some saying they feared reprisal attacks from the Taliban.

Karzai spoke only briefly Sunday following a longer address on Thursday, but relations between the two leaders appeared warmer than in the past, such as their White House meeting last fall when the two refused to shake hands in front of the press corps.

In the past, Karzai has complained that Taliban fighters operate from havens in Pakistan’s tribal region along their border. Musharraf denies that, but also has said that he would act if the Afghans provided good intelligence on militants operating in the region.

On Sunday, Musharraf said both Afghanistan and Pakistan must be “watchful against the machinations of outsiders who may try to create mistrust and a gulf between the two brotherly countries.”

He did not say who the outsiders are but referred to them as extremists and fanatics, a possible reference to the hundreds of foreign fighters in the region the U.S. military says come from Chechnya, Africa and Arab Gulf states.

But Musharraf indicated that even the Taliban, who are responsible for the roadside bombs and suicide attacks that have killed hundreds of international and Afghan troops and civilians the last several years, have a place in Afghanistan.

“Taliban are part of the Afghan society. Most of them may be ignorant and misguided, but all of them are not die-hard militants and fanatics who defy even the most fundamental values of our culture and our faith,” he said.

A Taliban spokesman, meanwhile, reiterated on Sunday that two sick South Korean hostages would be released soon, although he did not say when. Negotiations between two Taliban leaders and South Korean officials over the fate of the remaining 21 hostages took place in Ghazni city on Friday and Saturday, but no new talks were held Sunday.

The governor of Ghazni province said Sunday that journalists could not take pictures or video or interview people close to the offices of the Afghan Red Cross, where the negotiations are being held and where on Saturday the two Taliban leaders held an impromptu news conference, the first such event in Afghanistan since the militants’ fall in late 2001.

Musharraf said Pakistan and Afghanistan are confronted with a “particularly dark form” of terrorism and that he had “no doubt” that Taliban militants find support in Pakistan and cross over into Afghanistan.

“Our societies face a great danger in the shape of fringe groups, a small minority that preaches hate, violence and backwardness,” he said. “We must rescue our societies from this new danger and work together to effectively defeat the forces of extremism and terrorism.”

Musharraf’s appearance was a boost for the jirga. He had pulled out of speaking at the opening session on Thursday because of domestic issues, instead sending Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

“Afghanistan has confidence in its neighboring country,” Karzai said. “I’m praying that both countries have peace and prosperity.”

The Taliban, ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, have stepped up attacks in the past two years. The violence has killed thousands, raising fears for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

Refuting allegations from some Afghan officials that Pakistan tries to undermine progress in Afghanistan, Musharraf said Pakistan wants to see a strong, peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

“It is therefore painful for us to hear allegations that we are deliberately causing disturbance or violence in your country. We do not have such a policy and we will never have such a shortsighted and disastrous policy,” he said.

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