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Taliban web article denounces peace talks, but Kabul upbeat

KABUL (Reuters) - An article on a Taliban website highlighted divisions on Thursday over landmark peace talks with Kabul, but an Afghan government minister played down suggestions that the militants’ leaders were split.

The two sides, which have fought each other since the U.S. invasion that overthrew the hardline Islamist Taliban in 2001, held a first official meeting in Pakistan on Wednesday to discuss the escalating conflict, which kills hundreds of Afghans each month.

On Thursday, a front-page article on the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad website said the leadership was against the talks. It called them a Pakistani ploy to deceive Kabul and said they could have “catastrophic” consequences.

“When the dust settles, the much-hailed talks... will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) to speak in their personal capacity,” said the article, which later vanished without explanation from the site.

Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, who attended the meeting in Pakistan, said that if there were differences within the Taliban, Kabul was not concerned.

“There may be some differences, but it is their own issue to discuss, and reach an agreement on,” he said.

He added that the Taliban delegation was approved by the group’s political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who frequently speaks for the Islamist insurgents’ reclusive supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

After more than 13 years of conflict, the stakes are high. Casualties among Afghanistan’s fledgling armed forces are on the rise, they are losing pockets of territory to insurgents, and there are fewer than 10,000 foreign troops left to support them after most NATO soldiers withdrew last year.

Karzai said the Taliban side had raised the issues of foreign troops, U.N. sanctions against its leaders, and prisoners of war. He said reports that the two sides had agreed to end large-scale military attacks were not correct but a ceasefire over the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which starts on July 17, had been discussed.

He did not elaborate on that possibility. After Wednesday’s talks, sources close to the participants said only that they had agreed to meet again in Qatar in mid-August.

“We have agreed to turn this meeting into a process,” Karzai said.

The Taliban issued a statement on Wednesday that said it had reorganized and its political office had been entrusted with both internal and foreign affairs. It was unclear how the restructuring related to the talks in Pakistan.

Divisions within the Taliban over the peace process run deep. Top battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, objected to sending the delegation for talks with Kabul, according to a lower-level Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by MushTaq Yuyufzai in Peshawar; Editing by Mark Trevelyan