July 8, 2015 / 3:41 AM / 2 years ago

Afghan delegation meeting Taliban in Pakistan

Afghan security forces walk past a burning car after a group of insurgents stormed a compound used by Afghanistan's intelligence agency in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 7, 2015.Omar Sobhani

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A delegation from Afghanistan's president is meeting representatives of the Taliban in the Pakistani capital, officials said, in the first publicly acknowledged talks with the insurgents fighting to topple the government in Kabul.

The tentative step toward full peace negotiations aimed at ending more than 13 years of war is being observed by U.S. and Chinese officials, according to Qazi Khalilullah, a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry.

Word of Tuesday's talks came hours after suspected Taliban suicide bomb attacks in the Afghan capital struck a convoy of foreign troops and a compound of the country's intelligence agency.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani first announced the talks earlier on Tuesday.

Pakistan is hosting the meeting "as part of the commitment to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process", a statement from Khalilullah said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the talks as a "breakthrough" and adding "this process has to succeed".

Sharif, who was on an official visit to Norway, cautioned that the effort would be difficult and said Afghanistan's neighbours and the international community should make sure "that nobody tries to derail this process".

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States welcomed the talks, calling them "an important step toward advancing prospects for a credible peace."

DRONE STRIKE, CAR BOMB

Pakistan has been urging the Taliban's exiled leadership to enter peace talks and the insurgents may also be motivated by the trend of some of its commanders breaking off to declare loyalty to rival jihadists Islamic State.

Separately, officials said two drone strikes this week targeting militants loyal to Islamic State in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed dozens of fighters, including the movement's second-in-command in Afghanistan.

The commander was identified by Afghan intelligence as Gul Zaman, who had been in Achin district where Islamic State sympathisers have taken territory from rival Taliban insurgents.

Taliban and other Islamist militants have stepped up attacks on Afghan and foreign forces this year, after most coalition troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

As security has deteriorated, a handful of Afghan districts have fallen under Taliban control. The growing presence of fighters loyal to Islamic State, mostly made up of disgruntled members of the Taliban, is an added concern.

On Tuesday, a suicide car bomber slammed into a vehicle carrying foreign forces in eastern Kabul, wounding at least two people. The blast blew the vehicle into a wall, leaving behind an empty, charred hulk.

The U.S.-led military coalition said there were no fatalities.

A foreigner and a bystander were wounded in the incident, said police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi.

In the second attack, suspected Taliban fighters raided a compound used by Afghanistan's intelligence agency, Karimi added, killing one security guard and wounding another.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.

LONG WAY FROM PEACE

Ghani has pushed for the peace process and has encouraged closer ties with neighbouring Pakistan in a bid to achieve this goal.

Many Afghans remain wary of Pakistan, however, blaming it for helping to bring the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s as well as supporting the militants after their ouster.

Ghani has warned previously that any process toward peace will likely take years, and that history shows that violence often increases along with talks as both sides seek leverage.

Although the first official acknowledgement, Tuesday's announcement follows several rounds of unofficial contact between prominent Afghan figures and Taliban representatives.

About 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. The majority are training Afghan forces.

On a visit to Kabul on Saturday, U.S. Senator John McCain called for U.S. troops to stay longer than planned in order to promote stability.

The current schedule is for the U.S. military to draw down to an embassy presence by the end of 2016.

Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Raju gopalakrishnan

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