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U.S. envoy says no decision on Taliban transfers
KABUL (Reuters) - The United States has not taken a decision on whether to release five prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay to support a nascent peace process with the Taliban, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Sunday.
Marc Grossman, after two days of talks in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and advisors, said he agreed with Afghan government demands that any negotiations should be under the umbrella of "a peace process among Afghans."
He also said any release of Taliban prisoners would first have to be agreed by U.S. lawmakers.
"We haven't made any decisions and it's no surprise to any of you that this is an issue in the Unites States of law. We have to meet the requirements of our law," Grossman said.
The Taliban announced this month that it would open a political office in Qatar as a prelude to holding peace talks with the United States and its allies, seen by their supporters as the best chance of ending the decade-long war ahead of a withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014.
As a confidence-building measure, the Islamist group called for the release of five officials being held at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military enclave and detention centre in Cuba.
But Karzai said on Saturday, after meeting Grossman, that Afghanistan was "not a place for foreigners to do their political experiments," pushing for more Afghan control of the process.
Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin, standing with Grossman, said the Afghan government was supportive of any process that could end fighting.
There were still many steps to be taken before the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Ludin said, but the Afghan government had given Grossman support in principle and hoped to bring Qatari diplomats to Afghanistan in the coming weeks to discuss the process.
"We support every effort that would lead to peace, that will bring peace and put an end to violence in Afghanistan," he said.
Grossman has been holding talks with Taliban negotiators for more than a year and his visit could accelerate more talks within weeks now he has the backing of Karzai.
But Grossman said the Taliban would first have to renounce international "terrorism" and say they were prepared to take part in a process where "Afghans talk to Afghans about the future."
Karzai, to underscore his ability to bring non-Taliban insurgent factions into fledgling negotiations, said at the weekend he had met the party of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the militant Hizb-i-Islami group, which shares many of the Taliban's anti-foreigner, anti-government aims.
But it was unclear if the Haqqani insurgent network, behind some of the deadliest attacks on U.S.-led forces and accused of receiving sanctuary in Pakistan, could play a role in any talks.
Grossman left the door open to the inclusion of the Haqqani network and reiterated that the United States had held one meeting with the network.
"From the Afghan perspective anyway, this is an inclusive process, but we'll have to see what turns up," he said.
Grossman was forced to drop plans to visit Pakistan ahead of his visit to Kabul as relations between Washington and Islamabad are still in a chill after a NATO cross-border air attack in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan's foreign minister told Reuters this week Washington should not push Islamabad to go after militant groups or bring them to the Afghan peace process.
Grossman said he was prepared to visit Pakistan and brief the government on the peace process "at any time, at any place," after the Pakistan government completed a review of relations between the two countries.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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