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Jul 28, 11:01 AM EDT

Pakistan to host second round of Kabul-Taliban talks



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ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistan is finalizing preparations to host the second round of landmark peace talks between Afghan government officials and the Taliban later this week, two Pakistani officials said Tuesday.

The talks are meant to find a way to end the 14-year war in Afghanistan, which has been a priority for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani since he took office last year. Ghani has sought Pakistan's help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.

Islamabad hosted the first round of the official, face-to-face discussions earlier this month. The meeting was supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives and ended with both sides agreeing to meet again.

Islamabad is now finalizing preparations for the next round on Friday, the two Pakistani officials confirmed to The Associated Press.

"Yes, the second round ... will take place in Pakistan on July 31," said one of them, a senior government official familiar with the peace process. The second, a security official, confirmed the date. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because arrangements were still being finalized.

Afghan government officials refused to provide details of the location or timing of the next round of peace talks, saying delegations have not yet been finalized.

"Nothing has yet been decided, the location could be Pakistan, or China or one of the Central Asian countries," one Afghan official said on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media about the issue.

Last week, two members of the Afghan High Peace Council, the body charged with negotiating a settlement with the Taliban insurgents, said China was the most likely venue for the second round of talks. At the time, both also said the talks would take place on July 30.

The two officials could not be reached to reconcile the different reports.

Last week, Afghan lawmaker Shazada Shahid, a spokesman for the High Peace Council, said at least one woman will be on the government team. He said the Taliban had made several demands of their own in the talks so far, including the removal of Taliban names from U.N. and U.S. blacklists, which would enable their members to travel internationally.

These are long-standing demands by the Taliban, along with the establishment of a permanent office, probably in a Gulf state, that would give them legitimacy as a political organization.

The Afghan side is likely to press for a cease-fire as its forces have been bearing the brunt of the insurgency after the U.S. and NATO reduced their combat role in Afghanistan at the start of the year, with Washington cutting its troop presence in the country.

The Kabul-Taliban talks come after several informal contacts between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives, most recently in Qatar and Norway. The fact that Pakistan had brought the two sides together was progress, after years of failed efforts.

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Associated Press writer Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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