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Russia hosts Afghan peace conference, hoping to boost talks

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Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for an international peace conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 18, 2021. Russia is hosting a peace conference for Afghanistan, bringing together government representatives and their Taliban adversaries along with regional observers in a bid to help jump-start the country's stalled peace process. The one-day gathering Thursday is the first of three planned international conferences ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, a date fixed under a year-old agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

MOSCOW – Russia hosted a peace conference for Afghanistan on Thursday, bringing together government representatives, the Taliban and international observers in a bid to help jump-start the country's stalled peace process.

The one-day gathering was the first of three planned international conferences ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, a date fixed under a year-old agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

Moscow’s attempt at mediation comes as talks in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban, still waging an insurgency, have stalled. Washington and Kabul have been pressing for a cease-fire while the Taliban say they will negotiate it as part of peace talks with the Afghan government.

“We hope that today's talks will help achieve progress in the inter-Afghan talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the start of the meeting.

The Moscow conference was attended by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan's National Reconciliation Council, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Representatives of Pakistan, Iran, India and China also participated.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a mediator in Afghanistan, reaching out to feuding factions as it jockeys with the U.S. for influence in the country. In 2019, it hosted talks between various Afghan factions.

Lavrov on Thursday urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to take a constructive stance and make compromises, adding that international participants should help create the necessary conditions for reaching a deal.

“The Afghan parties interested in the national reconciliation can reach peace only through negotiations and compromises,” Lavrov said. “It's important to sign an agreement that would serve the interests of all key ethnic and political forces of the country and determine the vector of its development.”

He emphasized that it was important to quickly reach a peace deal “amid the deteriorating military-political situation” before the summer, when an upsurge in fighting is likely.

In a statement issued after the talks, Russia, the U.S., China and Pakistan called on the warring parties to reduce the level of violence in the country — and specifically urged the Taliban not to pursue a spring offensive.

“We urge participants in the intra-Afghan negotiations to engage immediately in discussions on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict, including the foundations of the future peaceful and stable Afghan state, the content of a political roadmap leading to an inclusive government, and the modalities of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”

Any peace agreement, they said, should “include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law.”

The joint statement emphasized the four countries do not support the restoration of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan like during the Taliban rule.

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, told reporters that the Afghan participants in the talks showed willingness to negotiate peace. adding they will have more meetings in Moscow.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks masterminded by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden who was sheltered by the Taliban. The invasion toppled the Taliban regime but the 20-year-war has made Afghanistan America's longest conflict.

Despite the U.S. spending nearly $1 trillion, al-Qaida is still present in Afghanistan, and an affiliate of the Islamic State group has taken root in the east of the country. Many Afghans fear the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops could lead to an upsurge in fighting between the country's rival factions.

The Taliban, who during their rule imposed a harsh brand of Islam on Afghanistan, now control about half of the country. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that the insurgents could make even more gains, without U.S. and NATO troops on the ground.

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Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.