NATO facilitating Taliban talks in Afghanistan: Petraeus

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The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus, admitted Friday that western troops have facilitated the safe passage of Taliban leaders to Kabul for talks with the government.

US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops had helped insurgent commanders get to the Afghan capital as part of its support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's negotiations with the rebels, he said.

"There are certain ongoing initiatives in that regard," Petraeus told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute in central London when asked about the state of negotiations with the hardline Islamist movement.

"And indeed in certain respects we do facilitate that, given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if ISAF were not witting and therefore aware of it and allows it to take place," Petraeus said.

Karzai this month launched the High Council for Peace, the latest effort to persuade the Taliban and other insurgents to negotiate an end to the war which has entered its 10th year.

The Taliban on Wednesday denied a claim by Karzai that they were taking part in the talks, more than nine years after they were driven from power by a US-led invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

But Petraeus, who also led the US "surge" in Iraq in 2007, said a number of key figures from the Taliban had also made contact with foreign forces in Afghanistan as well as with local authorities.

"There have been several very senior Taliban leaders who have reached out to the Afghan government at the highest level and also in some cases reached out to other countries engaged in Afghanistan," he said.

He did not specify which countries.

Petraeus warned however the talks were still at an early stage, saying they "can only be characterised as preliminary in nature, they certainly would not be raised to the level of negotiations."

A senior NATO official confirmed on Wednesday on condition of anonymity that the coalition force sometimes allows safe passage for Taliban figures travelling to the capital for talks with the Afghan government.

On the death of a British aid worker suspected of having been accidentally killed by a US special forces soldier during a rescue mission in Afghanistan, Petraeus said he was making the investigation a "priority."

Petraeus said he had personally spoken to the father of Linda Norgrove, 36, the Briton killed last week, "and conveyed to him not only the most sincere condolences but also an update on the investigation".

The possibility that she had been killed by a US soldier, and not her captors as initially thought, emerged when commanders studied enhanced video of the operation afterwards and saw a "throwing motion and then an explosion".

But he did not confirm reports that the unnamed soldier, a member of the elite US Navy SEALs, could face disciplinary action for failing to inform commanders that he had tossed a grenade during the botched operation.

With more than 150,000 US and NATO troops now in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents have stepped up their attacks, with suicide bombers and roadside bombs exacting an major toll.

© 2010 AFP

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