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Friday, April 17, 1998 Published at 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK

World: S/W Asia

Breakthrough for Afghan peace
image: [ Bill Richardson, the US envoy is in Kabul meeting Taliban and opposition Afghan leaders ]
Bill Richardson, the US envoy is in Kabul meeting Taliban and opposition Afghan leaders

Reports from Afghanistan say that leaders of the northern anti-Taleban alliance have agreed to hold peace talks with the Taleban and to suspend military operations until then.

Bill Richardson: 'a process has started that might lead to peace' (0'54")
It is a major breakthrough that follows talks with the US ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, who earlier in the day announced the Taleban movement had decided to negotiate with opposition forces.

Speaking at the end of his talks with the second most senior Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, Mr Richardson said good progress had been made.

[ image: Richardson:
Richardson: "Peace depends on deeds not words"
Both the Taleban and their opposition have now agreed to attend talks in ten days time in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Both sides have also promised not to launch any major military offensives until then.

Bill Richardson's brief visit was arranged to support the current peace initiative of the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Both sides had already agreed last week with Mr Brahimi to go ahead with these talks, which are preliminary discussions about how full peace negotiations might take place.

As further gestures of goodwill, the Taleban have agreed to release a significant number of prisoners of war very shortly, and are to allow female doctors to work.

A senior Taleban spokesman, Maulavi Mutawakil, described Mr Richardson's visit as an important one in helping to build understanding between the Taleban and the outside world.

The US envoy arrived in Afghanistan on Friday - the most senior American official to visit the country for more than 20 years.

Speaking to reporters on his arrival in Kabul, Mr Richardson said that he believed that the Afghan people wanted an end to war and that the country deserved more attention from the international community.

Mr Richardson is on the final leg of a tour of South Asia to prepare for a visit to the region by President Bill Clinton towards the end of the year.

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