KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said Friday he met with Taliban militants in attempts to bring peace to the country and urged supporters of the fundamentalist militia to lay down their weapons.
"We have had representatives from the Taliban meeting with different bodies of Afghan government for a long time," Karzai told a news conference in Kabul. "I have had some Taliban coming to speak to me as well," he said.
Karzai did not disclose any details of these meetings, or indicate if they included talks with senior militant leaders.
Afghan Taliban ‘sons of soil’
Hundreds of former members of the hardline Taliban regime have reconciled with the government since they were ousted from power in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
But senior rebels leaders have refused to hold talks, and thousands more fighters have picked up guns and joined a bloody insurgency, particularly in the country's south and east, which last year alone left some 4,000 people, mainly militants, dead.
Karzai urged Afghan Taliban to lay down weapons and join his government, but ruled out any deals with foreign militants.
"Afghan Taliban are always welcome, they belong to this country ... they are the sons of this soil," Karzai said. "As they repent, as they regret, as they want to come back to their own country, they are welcome."
But the foreign militants — an apparent reference to militants from neighboring countries such as Pakistan — "should be destroyed," he said.
"They are destroying our lives, killing our people, they are not welcome and there will be no talks with them, " Karzai said.
The Afghan leader often accuses Pakistan of not only providing sanctuary for the Taliban, but guiding the rebels in an attempt to wield influence over Afghanistan — charges denied by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on terror.
Defends controversial prisoner swap
Karzai defended last month's release by Afghan authorities of five Taliban militants in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, saying the case was threatening Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government.
However, he ruled out further prisoner swaps.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, of Italian daily La Repubblica, along with an Afghan translator and a driver, were kidnapped in southern Helmand province on March 5. The driver was beheaded and the translator, Ajmal Nashqbandi, is still being held.
"The Italian prime minister called me several times and asked for cooperation from our side," Karzai said. "The Italian government was facing collapse," Karzai said.
"For (the sake) of all the help from the Italian people, even though we knew what this action will cause, we had to do it," Karzai said of the exchange.
Italy has some 1,800 troops in western Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led security force, and is also funding construction of a key road road to link the central province of Bamiyan with Kabul.
The prisoner swap that secured Mastrogiacomo's March 19 release has been criticised by Afghan lawmakers and foreigners working in Afghanistan as an incentive for more militant kidnappings.
Karzai ruled out another swap to secure the freedom of two French workers with the aid group Terre d'Enfance and three Afghans who were abducted in southwestern Afghanistan on Tuesday
"No, that is not possible," he said.
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