Regional conference backs resumption of Afghan peace talks

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A regional conference held in Pakistan on Wednesday ended with calls for the resumption of Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations and an agreement by Islamabad and New Delhi to relaunch bilateral talks that broke down in August over tensions in Kashmir.

Representatives of over two dozen countries met in the Pakistani capital as part of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process initiative, which was launched in 2011 to promote Afghan peace efforts. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani jointly opened the conference amid tight security.

In a statement after a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Islamabad gathering, the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan expressed support for resuming Kabul-Taliban talks "immediately." A statement from the Pakistani foreign ministry said "all efforts for dialogue between Afghanistan and Taliban groups will be explored and encouraged."

Earlier, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani told reporters that the United States, China and Pakistan had expressed their willingness to work with Kabul on peace efforts. He said he hoped to see "positive moves in the coming week."

According to Rabbani, Afghanistan would welcome "all those opposition elements who renounce violence, who accept Afghanistan's constitution and who disarm and join the government-led peace and reconciliation process."

Kabul has long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and turning a blind eye to the presence of Taliban leaders in its territory.

Pakistan hosted rare face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last summer, but the negotiations collapsed after Afghanistan announced that longtime Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital two years earlier.

Sartaj Aziz, an adviser to Pakistan's prime minister, said Islamabad "desires long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan."

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj attended Wednesday's conference and held separate talks with the prime minister and Aziz.

She then told reporters that Pakistan and India had agreed to resume talks, which have been on hold since August, when Aziz cancelled a visit to India over Kashmir violence.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said the two sides had agreed to relaunch a "Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue" on Kashmir and other issues.

Since independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, the Himalayan region that both claim in its entirety.

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