Afghan peace team to visit Taleban commander: Officials

KABUL (AFP) - Afghan negotiators seeking peace with the Taleban will soon travel to Pakistan for their first meeting with key militant commander Mullah Baradar, officials said Wednesday.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement that a deal had been reached after talks on Tuesday in London with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Baradar was freed from jail in Pakistan in September as part of efforts to kickstart Afghanistan's peace process, but since his "release" it appears he has been kept under house arrest by the Pakistanis.

"It was agreed on that a High Peace Council delegation will visit Pakistan and meet with Mullah Baradar in the near future," the statement from Mr Karzai's office said.

The High Peace Council is the Afghan body charged with opening negotiations with the Taleban insurgents as US-led NATO forces prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of next year.

Support from Pakistan, which backed Afghanistan's 1996-2001 Taleban regime, is seen as crucial to peace after NATO troops depart - but relations between the neighbours remain uneasy.

The Pakistani government insists Baradar, once the number two to Taleban supremo Mullah Omar, has been released and is free to meet anyone to further the peace process.

But the Taleban complain he is effectively still behind bars and Pakistani security officials last month said he was being held at a safe house in Karachi.

Afghan officials believe that Baradar could encourage Taleban leaders to seek a negotiated settlement to end the 12-year insurgency if he were fully at liberty.

A Taleban office in Qatar that opened in June was meant to lead to talks, but instead it enraged Mr Karzai after it was styled as an embassy for a government-in-exile.

Mr Karzai and Mr Sharif met in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the fourth of a series of trilateral meetings designed to foster stability in the volatile south Asia region.

The meeting was considerably more low-key than one hosted by Cameron at his official country retreat in February, which ended with grand promises of a peace deal within six months.

Mr Karzai's statement said that Sharif had agreed to make his first visit to Kabul soon since coming to power after May's general election, but there was no immediate confirmation from the Pakistani side.

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