Taliban to send delegation to Afghanistan peace meeting hosted by Russia

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban will send a 10-person delegation to an Afghanistan peace meeting hosted by Russia this week, the insurgent group’s spokesman said on Monday.

The delegation will be led by Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader and chief negotiator in U.S.-brokered talks in Qatar, spokesman Mohammad Naeem said in a statement.

The Russian-backed conference is scheduled for March 18, one of a number of diplomatic initiatives to attempt to jumpstart the stalling Afghan peace process. The Afghan government confirmed on Saturday it would participate in the conference.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has this month been travelling around the region trying to shake up the peace process and spark progress as a troop withdrawal deadline nears and Washington reviews its policy for Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Khalilzad had met with Ghani in Kabul on Monday and updated him on his recent trips. Khalilzad had previously been in Doha, where negotiations are taking place, and also visited Pakistan.

Khalilzad has also proposed a meeting among main players to be held in Turkey with heavy United Nations involvement next month. The Afghan government has said they would take part in that conference, but the Taliban has not yet confirmed whether they would attend.

It comes at a crunch time for the peace process as a May 1 deadline for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan looms. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which is reviewing arrangements including a deal with the Taliban made under his predecessor, Donald Trump, has said all options remain on the table.

Peace talks have failed to gain momentum since starting in September with both sides yet to agree on an agenda, while violence has risen.

On Monday, a blast tore through a minivan in Kabul, according to police who said 15 civilians were injured. It was not clear who was behind the blast.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Toby Chopra and Jonathan Oatis