DOHA (AFP) - Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taleban met in Doha for talks on Saturday (July 17), AFP correspondents said, as violence rages in the country with foreign forces almost entirely withdrawn.
The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital, but the talks have lost momentum as the insurgents have made battlefield gains.
Several high-ranking officials, including former Afghan former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, gathered in a luxury hotel on Saturday after morning prayers.
Former president Hamid Karzai had also been due to travel to Doha but remained in Kabul, according to a source.
They were joined by negotiators from the Taleban's political office in Doha.
"The high level delegation is here to talk to both sides, guide them and support the (government) negotiating team in terms of speeding up the talks and have progress," said Najia Anwari, the spokeswoman for the Afghan government negotiating team in Doha.
"We expect that it (will) speed the talks and... in a short time, both sides will reach a result and we will witness a durable and dignified peace in Afghanistan," she told AFP.
'Ready for dialogue'
The Taleban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country.
"We are ready for dialogue, for talks and negotiations, and our priority is to solve the problems through dialogue," Taleban spokesman Muhamad Naeem told the Al Jazeera broadcaster ahead of Saturday's talks.
"The other side must have a true and sincere will to end the problems." Talks between the government and the Taleban side led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar began with Koranic recitations, Naeem tweeted Saturday.
Afghan forces clashed Friday with Taleban fighters in Spin Boldak after launching an operation to retake the key southern border crossing with Pakistan.
The Taleban have also tightened their grip in the north, and battled for the stronghold of an infamous warlord.
The battle at the southern border follows weeks of intensifying fighting across Afghanistan, with the Taleban pressing multiple offensives and overrunning dozens of districts at a staggering rate.
As fighting raged over large swathes of Afghanistan, a war of words was also heating up between Kabul and Islamabad, after the Afghan vice-president accused the Pakistani military of providing "close air support to Taleban in certain areas".
Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with a foreign ministry statement saying the country "took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population".
Islamabad had touted a conference of regional leaders to address the spiralling violence.
Instead it announced it would delay the summit until after the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast, due to start next week at the end of the annual haj pilgrimage, clearing the way for the Doha gathering.
Afghanistan's southern border has long been a flashpoint in relations with its eastern neighbour.
Pakistan's Balochistan province has been home to the Taleban's top leadership for decades, along with a large contingent of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to bolster their ranks.
Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the Sept 11 attacks.
They have appeared largely out of the picture in recent months, but fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.
The speed and scale of the Taleban onslaught have caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears aimed at forcing the government to negotiate on the insurgents' terms or suffer complete military defeat.
Russia's foreign minister said Friday that the US mission in Afghanistan had "failed".