Afghan President Hamid Karzai has met a senior delegation for peace talks with one of the main insurgent groups fighting against his government and foreign troops, Mr. Karzai's spokesman said on Monday.
Although the talks with delegates from the Hezb-i-Islami group appeared to be preliminary, it was Mr. Karzai's first confirmed direct contact with the faction and could signal prospects for a separate peace with a group that rivals the Taliban.
"I can confirm that a delegation of Hezb-i-Islami ... is in Kabul with a plan and has met with the president," Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said.
A spokesman for Hezb-i-Islami said it was the first time the group had sent senior envoys to Kabul for peace talks. They had brought a 15-point peace plan which includes a demand for withdrawal of foreign troops, said Haroun Zarghoun, spokesman for the group's fugitive leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Mr. Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami has shared some of the aims of the Taliban, but has led a separate insurgency mainly in the east and pockets of the north of the country. In recent months Taliban fighters have pushed into Hezb-i-Islami strongholds, leading to clashes between fighters from the two groups.
The delegation is led by Qutbuddin Helal, a former prime minister and deputy to Mr. Hekmatyar, and also includes Mr. Hekmatyar's son-in-law, Mr. Zarghoun said.
"The main point of the plan is the withdrawal of all foreign forces from July this year, and that this is to be completed within six months," Mr. Zarghoun told Reuters on a mobile phone with a Pakistan number.
"The current government and parliament are to function until a provisional administration is formed after six months, and presidential and parliamentary polls are held in March 2011," he said, adding that details of the plan were negotiable.
Mr. Karzai has launched a high profile effort to reach out to insurgents this year, and included a former Hezb-i-Islami member as the economy minister in his new cabinet in January.
Mr. Zarghoun said the delegation might also meet U.S. officials to discuss the plan, however U.S. embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States had no plans to meet them.
"The U.S. does support the Afghan government's interest in reaching out to members of insurgent groups that cease support to the insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and have no ties to al Qaeda or terrorist groups that share its objectives," she said.
Washington, which has the bulk of the 120,000 international troops in Afghanistan, has been cautious about Mr. Karzai's efforts to reach out to senior militants.
The United States is in the process of increasing its forces in Afghanistan this year but has already announced plans to begin withdrawing in mid-2011. Western governments and Mr. Karzai hope an outreach program combined with a year of stepped-up military pressure will persuade insurgents to lay down their arms.
The former head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, confirmed last week that he had held talks with Taliban representatives over the past year. He said those talks ended in recent weeks after Pakistan arrested the Afghan Taliban's number two leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Hezb-i-Islami is one of the three groups that NATO forces recognize as the main insurgent factions, led by Mr. Hekmatyar, a veteran anti-Soviet guerrilla commander, civil war faction leader and former prime minister.
Mr. Hekmatyar's Islamist fighters have long fought NATO and Afghan government forces in the east and in pockets in the north.
Like Mr. Karzai, Mr. Hekmatyar is an ethnic Pashtun, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan which makes up the bulk of the insurgency against the foreign forces. Mr. Hekmatyar is known for repeatedly shifting alliances over three decades of war.
The group has in the past claimed to share some aims with the Taliban, but has remained separate, even as growing Taliban influence has spread to Hezb-i-Islami areas.
Earlier this month, the government said scores of Hezb-i-Islami fighters in a northern district had surrendered after clashing with Taliban guerrillas over control of villages.