13 die in Afghanistan amid calls for peace talks with insurgents
KABUL -- Thirteen Afghan civilians died in violence on Sunday as the nation's hard-line vice president expressed hopes for a peace deal with insurgents, and as representatives of a militant group with ties to the Taliban brought their own draft of a deal to the capital.
Talk of reconciling with insurgents has done little to slow the fighting across Afghanistan, yet the issue is gaining steam, partly fueled by a "peace jirga," or conference, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to host in late April or early May.
The Afghan government and others from the international community have had secret contacts with the Taliban, or their representatives, at the same time that thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements are streaming into the country to slow the insurgency.
Helmand province in southern Afghanistan was the scene of deadly violence on Sunday. A suicide bomber killed 10 civilians and wounded seven others when he detonated explosives near an Afghan army patrol at a bridge in the town of Gereshk.
In eastern Afghanistan, two civilians died when a roadside bomb exploded near a crowd celebrating the Afghan new year in Khost province. In Wardak province, NATO said an elderly man was shot and killed by Afghan and international forces that mistakenly thought he was a threat.
Besides working on ways to reconcile with the Taliban's top leaders, the Afghan government is finalizing a plan to use economic incentives to coax low- and mid-level insurgent fighters off the battlefield. Pakistan, Iran and other international players, meanwhile, have begun staking out positions on possible reconciliation negotiations, which could signal an endgame to the eight-year-old war.
Harun Zarghun, chief spokesman for the militant group Hezb-e-Islami, said a five-member delegation was in Kabul to meet with government officials and to meet with Taliban leaders somewhere in Afghanistan. The group, which has longtime ties to al-Qaeda, was founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a prime minister in the 1990s who was a rebel commander in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
Spokesmen for the Karzai government could not be reached for comment.
Khalid Farooqi, a member of the parliament from Paktika province, said that one delegation from Hezb-e-Islami arrived 10 days ago. A second one arrived on Saturday, including Qutbudin Halal, a powerful figure in the group.
Zarghun, the group's spokesman, said the delegation is carrying a 15-point plan that calls for foreign forces to start pulling out in July -- a full year ahead of President Obama's target to start withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011.
The plan also calls for the current Afghan parliament to serve through December. After that, the parliament would be replaced by an interim government, or shura, which would hold local and national elections within a year, according to the plan. Zarghun said a new Afghan constitution would be written, merging the current version with earlier ones.
In the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, to mark the Afghan new year, hard-line Vice President Mohammed Qasim Fahim expressed hope that the upcoming jirga will lay a foundation for peace with insurgents.
-- Associated Press