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BREAKING NEWS

Afghanistan ceasefire push in focus in U.S.-Taliban talks

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By Jibran Ahmad and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - U.S. and Taliban officials have discussed proposals for a six-month ceasefire in Afghanistan and a future withdrawal of foreign troops as talks aimed at setting up peace negotiations went into a second day, Taliban sources said.

The three-day meeting in Abu Dhabi is at least the third time that U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met Taliban representatives as diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year war have intensified this year.

An Afghan government delegation travelled to the city and met Khalilzad.

However, despite U.S. insistence that any peace settlement must be agreed between Afghans, the Taliban have refused to talk directly with officials from the Kabul government, which they consider an illegitimate, foreign-appointed regime.

"Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration whatsoever," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

"The entire agenda is focused on issues concerning the occupiers and talks will exclusively be held with them."

The Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the movement's political office in Qatar and included members of the leadership group based in Quetta, Pakistan and the chief of staff of Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

"It's a well coordinated meeting where members from the political commissions and Quetta shura are both participating for the first time," said one peace activist in close contact with the Taliban side at the meeting.

The presence in the delegation of senior officials close to the Taliban leader underscored the importance of the talks, which are shaping up as the most serious attempt to open negotiations since at least 2015.

On Monday, the delegation met officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates ahead of their meeting with Khalilzad, who was appointed to oversee Washington's peace effort in September.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

CEASEFIRE

Taliban officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. delegation was pressing for a six-month ceasefire as well as an agreement to name Taliban representatives to a future caretaker government.

For their part, Taliban priorities included the release of Taliban prisoners and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

However Taliban officials were resisting the ceasefire proposal as they felt it would damage their cause and help U.S. and Afghan forces.

The latest round of diplomacy comes about a year after the United States sent thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan and stepped up air strikes to record levels, with the aim of pushing the Taliban to accept talks.

An Afghan government team travelled to Abu Dhabi "to begin proximity dialogue with the Taliban delegation and to prepare for a face-to-face meeting between the two sides", government spokesman Haroon Chakansuri said in a statement.

But there was no sign from the Taliban they were ready to accept talks with the government and the Kabul delegation were based in an Abu Dhabi hotel away from the location of the talks.

The United States says the aim of the talks is to facilitate an Afghan-led process and the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan in the talks reflects a U.S. desire to bring in countries with an interest in Afghanistan.

Previous meetings were held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, but a push to include Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to the gas-rich Gulf state, prompted a change of venue to Abu Dhabi.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

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