Afghanistan seeks explanation for Taleban office in Qatar

KABUL (AP) - Afghanistan's government said on Sunday it is still waiting for a full explanation of how the Taleban were allowed to open an office in Qatar that was akin to an embassy, flying the militant group's flag and using its formal name from the years it ruled the country.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said the Afghan government remains willing to send a peace delegation to Doha to negotiate with the Taleban once it has its explanation, as well as assurances that the office will be nothing more than a place for talks.

"The Afghan government remains fully committed to pursue a process of peace negotiations with the armed opposition, including the Taleban, but within the confines of the conditions and the principles and the assurances that we have established," Mr Mosazai told reporters in Kabul.

The diplomatic incident served as a reminder of just how difficult a task lies ahead in getting all sides to the negotiating table after nearly 12 years of war.

The Taleban's office opened on Tuesday in a ceremony broadcast on "live" television, accompanied by a simultaneous announcement that United States officials would begin formal talks with Taleban representatives, which eventually would be joined by the Afghan government.

That raised hopes that the long-stalled peace process could finally begin.

But the Taleban's use of its old flag and a sign bearing the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which the movement used during its five-year rule that ended in 2001 with the US-led invasion, provoked outrage across party lines in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted sharply, suspending negotiations with the US over what presence international forces may keep in Afghanistan after 2014 and demanded the offending sign and flag be removed.

The Taleban has since complied after the Qatar government intervened. Both the US and the Qataris said the Taleban had agreed on the pre-approved name but violated the pact at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In a statement sent via e-mail on Sunday, however, Taleban spokesman Muhammad Naeem said the use of the flag and name was "done with the agreement of the Qatari government".

"The statement which states that by using the name and raising the flag, the Islamic Emirate somehow violated an agreement... is completely false," he said in an English-language statement.

The Qatari government had no immediate response.

At the Taleban office in Doha, security was boosted on Sunday but there were no apparent signs of meetings or other diplomatic activity. There was no flag visible from the street.

On Saturday, Taleban spokesman Shaheen Suhail suggested the Taleban was willing to move ahead with peace talks, despite "much anger" among some members over the removal of the name and the lowering of the Taleban's white flag emblazoned with a Quranic verse in black.

Mr Mosazai said, however, that Afghanistan is still waiting for a full explanation from Washington and guarantees the Taleban will not attempt to revert to its formal name again.

"We need an explanation about how this happened, why this happened, who made this happen - and then for the office and its terms of reference to be brought back into full compliance with the written assurances given to the Afghan government prior to the establishment of the office," he said.

He also suggested that after "initial contacts" between the Taleban and the US, the Afghan government expects to lead official peace talks and would push to move them to Afghanistan.

"Official negotiations in the context of the peace process will have to be, and can only take place, between the (Afghan) High Peace Council on the one hand and the authorised representatives of the Taleban on the other," he said.

"Our preference would be for those negotiations to take place inside Afghanistan after the initial stage."