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Mon 25 Jan 2016 03:20 PM

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Qatar hosts rare peace talks with Taliban

Afghan group demanded the release of political prisoners as one of the conditions to rejoining peace talks

Qatar hosts rare peace talks with Taliban
Image for illustrative purpose only. (Getty Images)

Participants from Afghanistan's Taliban and former Afghan officials met in Qatar at a conference this weekend to resolve the 15-year war organised by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel peace prize-winning crisis group.

The rare talks are a step towards a peace process that has proved elusive during a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the Taliban were driven from power by a 2001 US-led military operation.

However, the Taliban demanded the release of political prisoners as one of the conditions that they said on Sunday would need to be met before they consider rejoining peace talks, Reuters reported.

Taliban forces have stepped up their campaign in the last year to topple the Kabul government, which has struggled since most foreign troops left at the end of 2014. The Islamist insurgents are demanding the release of an unnamed list of prisoners, to be removed from a UN blacklist freezing their assets and imposing a travel ban on its leaders, and to have a political office formally recognized.

These are "among the preliminary steps needed for peace," the Taliban said in a statement. "Without them, progress towards peace is not feasible."

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, said the Taliban have been fairly consistent in their demands and he is sceptical the latest push would yield any results.

"The demand for a release of what they call political prisoners had been on the table in earlier talks, too," he said. The latest demands are not a sign that the "Taliban are willing to join talks anytime soon".

The meeting in Doha is further evidence of Qatar’s diplomatic role between the Taliban and the West.

Taliban members have lived in Qatar for a number of years and the group opened a political office in Doha in 2013, only to close it days later.

Earlier this month, a Canadian man seized in Afghanistan five years ago and accused of being a spy was released by the Taliban with the aid of Qatar, Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said.

"Canada is very pleased that efforts undertaken to secure the release of Colin Rutherford from captivity have been successful," Dion said in a statement.

"We look forward to Mr. Rutherford being able to return to Canada and reunite with his family and loved ones," he said, extending "heartfelt thanks" to the government of Qatar for its help.

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