Taliban, Western officials meet for talks in Oslo

OSLO: Taliban and Western diplomats meet in Oslo on Monday for talks on Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and human rights, especially those of women whose freedoms have been curbed by the hardline group.

In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the European Union and Norway.

The Taliban delegation is headed by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.

The closed-door discussions, facilitated by Norway, are being held at the Soria Moria Hotel, on a snowy hilltop outside Oslo.

The discussions are expected to focus on Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation, which has deteriorated drastically since last August when the fundamentalists stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled.

International aid came to a halt, worsening the plight of millions of people already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

Thomas West, the US special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on Sunday: “As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief [organisations], we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan.”

No country has yet recognised the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”.

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said Friday.

Meanwhile, the Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war… into a peaceful situation”, government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.

Since August, international aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, has been suspended and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country, already ravaged by several severe droughts.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

‘Icebreaker’

The international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Islamists claim to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and most secondary schools for girls remain closed.

Two women activists disappeared this week in Kabul.

On Sunday, during the first day of the three-day visit to Oslo, the Taliban met with Afghan civil society members, including women activists and journalists, for talks on human rights.

One of those attending the meetings, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani, told AFP “it was a positive ice-breaking meeting.”

The Taliban “displayed goodwill…. Let’s see what their actions will be, based on their words,” she said.

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet: “All Afghans need to work together for better political, economic and security outcomes”.

“The participants… recognised that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions.”

The 15 members of the all-male delegation arrived on Saturday aboard a plane chartered by the Norwegian government.

Among them was Anas Haqqani, a leader of the most feared and violent faction of the Taliban movement –- the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan.

His participation has been heavily criticised on social media.

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