A former Taliban ambassador said Monday that the hard-line militants sat with Afghan officials and Saudi King Abdullah over an important religious meal in Saudi Arabia last month as the insurgency raged back home.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, denied the get-together could be construed as peace talks. But President Hamid Karzai has long called for negotiations with the Taliban.
With U.S. and NATO forces suffering their deadliest year so far in Afghanistan, the top U.N. envoy, Kai Eide, said Monday that the war “has to be won through political means.”
“And that means political engagement. Then comes a question – with whom do you engage? My general answer is that if you want to have relevant results you must speak to those who are relevant,” Eide told a news conference. “But these are processes that are very difficult to initiate. Nevertheless, in my view a policy of engagement is the right policy.”
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A spokesman for Karzai's office declined to comment on the alleged meeting.
But Zaeef said he was invited by Saudi King Abdullah to share Iftar – the meal that breaks the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Taliban representatives, Afghan government officials and a representative for the powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were also at the meal, he said.
He said all parties talked socially but did not discuss any issue involving Afghanistan. It was not clear how many guests attended the dinner or where in Saudi Arabia it was held.
Zaeef, who spent almost four years in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said none of the representatives from the Taliban or Hekmatyar's group was authorized to carry out peace talks.
“This is not new, it's a kind of a guest celebration,” Zaeef said, implying Abdullah hosts visitors often.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi also said Monday that there had been no peace talks.
Karzai last week said he has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia's king to facilitate talks with the Taliban. Karzai said Afghan officials have traveled to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in hopes of ending the now seven-year conflict but that so far there have been no negotiations.