ISLAMABAD Officials from the four nations seeking to end Afghanistan's 15-year-old war agreed on Saturday to press for direct talks between Taliban groups and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul by the end of the month.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China have for weeks been trying to lay the groundwork for talks with the Taliban, which has made gains since the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Rival factions competing for leadership of the Islamist movement have expressed different views on whether to join the process, but officials appeared hopeful that at least some groups would be willing to participate.
In a statement following the meeting in Islamabad, officials said the countries "agreed to continue joint efforts for setting a date for direct peace talks between the representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban groups expected to take place by the end of February 2016".
Senior members of the Afghan Taliban said they had decided not to participate in Saturday's four-way talks in Islamabad, citing objections to the presence of both the United States and the current Afghan government.
"We believe in dialogue and feel that all the issues can be resolved through negotiations, but we don't have any trust in the U.S. and puppet Afghan government," said a senior member aligned with Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, leader of the largest Taliban faction.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Afghan government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said elements of the Taliban could join talks within six months, but the latest statement suggests officials are looking at a more ambitious timetable.
Despite widespread scepticism, officials say the talks offer the only immediate prospect of ending the fighting. A further meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Kabul.
"We have to exert all our efforts and energies for keeping the process on track," Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, said in opening remarks in the Pakistani capital.
Peace efforts broke down last year after it became known the Taliban movement's founder and leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who sanctioned the talks, had been dead for two years, exposing deep fissures within the insurgency.
In January, the group made a raft of demands as a pre-condition to joining talks, including that it be removed from a U.N. blacklist, formal recognition of a political office for the group and the release of political prisoners.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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