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Work begins in earnest to end Afghan conflict: Khalilzad

DOHA: US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met the Taliban`s top political leader in Doha on Monday, in what is believed to be the highest level engagement between the US and the Taliban since the months-long peace push began.

Mr Khalilzad tweeted that he and Mullah Abdul GhaniBaradar, a co-founder of the Islamist movement, had held a `working lunch` ahead of a fresh round of talks with the militant group as the US seeks a way out of its longest war.

The arrival in Qatar late on Sunday of Mullah Baradar, seen as close to Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, hashelped fuel speculation of a breakthrough.

Marathon talks last month saw the two sides walk away with a `draft framework` that included a Taliban vow to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terrorist groups.

There was no accord on a US withdrawal or a ceasefire, however, issues which have derailed attempts at peace talks in the past, while the government in Kabul has voiced increasingly loud fears it was being sidelined from the talks.

`Arrived in #Doha to meet witha more authoritative Taliban delegation. This could be a significant moment. Appreciate #Qatar for hosting & #Pakistan in facilitating travel. Now the work begins in earnest,` Mr Khalilzad had tweeted.

He later posted: `Just finished a working lunch with Mullah Baradar and his team. First time we`ve met. Now moving on to talks.

A statement released by the Taliban late on Monday on social media said their negotiating team would continue to be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, while Mullah Baradar would be on hand to provide `instructions` when needed.

Mullah Baradar is widely believed to be an influential leader carrying popular support across the Taliban`s myriad factions, sparking heightened expectations for the talks.

`The fact that Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar is attending the talks, shows both sides are serious this time,` Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Sayeedi said. Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai added that Mullah Baradar`s long history as a leader in the movement also signalled to `rank and file fighters` that the negotiations were in the `hands of someone who is loyal`.

Afghan special envoy for peace Mohammad Omar Daudzai also lauded Mullah Baradar`s participation, saying the militant leader was known for being `independent` and making `tough decisions`. `[I] hope he uses his independence to decide on peace as soon as possible, Mr Daudzai told a press conference in the Afghan capital. Mullah Baradar was arrested in Pakistan in 2010, but was released in October and named as head of the Taliban`s political office in Doha. He is one of several deputies to Mr Akhundzada, along with Mullah Omar`s son and the head of the Haqqaninetwork,Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Meanwhile, the government in Kabul continued to voice concerns on Monday over being sidelined from the negotiations.

The Taliban have steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Kabul government, whom they dismiss as `puppets`. `The Taliban are still not ready to talk to Afghan government, but we are ready. We think that Taliban`s dishonesty is the onlyobstacle,`saidAbdullah Abdullah, the country`s defacto prime minister, in a televised address on Monday.

`We are flexible and ready to make a team that is acceptable to all.`-AFP