Anti-Taliban leader Massoud wants to talk but ready to fight

Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks during an interview at his house in Bazarak, Panjshir province Afghanistan September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Aug 22 (Reuters) - Ahmad Massoud, leader of Afghanistan's last major outpost of anti-Taliban resistance, said on Sunday he hoped to hold peaceful talks with the Islamist movement that seized power in Kabul a week ago but that his forces were ready to fight.

"We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation," he told Reuters by telephone from his stronghold in the Panjshir valley northwest of Kabul, where he has gathered forces made up of remnants of regular army units and special forces as well as local militia fighters.

"We do not want a war to break out."

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The comments came as a statement on the Taliban's Alemarah Twitter feed said hundreds of fighters were heading towards Panjshir "after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully". A short video showed a column of captured trucks with the white Taliban flag but still bearing their government markings moving along a highway.

Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the main leaders of Afghanistan's anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s, said his supporters were ready to fight if Taliban forces tried to invade the valley.

"They want to defend, they want to fight, they want to resist against any totalitarian regime."

However there was some uncertainty about whether the operation by Taliban forces had begun or not. A Taliban official said an offensive had been launched on Panjshir. But an aide to Massoud said there were no signs that the column had actually entered the narrow pass into the valley and there had been no reports of fighting.

In the only confirmed fighting since the fall of Kabul on Sunday, anti-Taliban forces took back three districts in the northern province of Baghlan, bordering Panjshir last week. However Massoud he said he had not organised the operation which he said had been carried out by local militia groups reacting to "brutality" in the area.

Massoud called for an inclusive, broad-based government in Kabul representing all of Afghanistan's different ethnic groups and said a "totalitarian regime" should not be recognised by the international community.

The wreckage of Soviet armoured vehicles that still dot the valley show how hard Panjshir has been to defeat in the past. But many outside observers have questioned whether Massoud's forces will be able to resist for long without outside support.

He said his forces, which one aide said numbered more than 6,000, would need international support if it came to fighting. But he said they did not just come from Panjshir, a region of Persian-speaking Tajiks long at odds with the Pashtuns who form the core of the Taliban movement.

"There are many other people from many other provinces who are seeking refuge in the Panjshir valley who are standing with us and who do not want to accept another identity for Afghanistan," he said.

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Additional reporting by Ahmad Elhamy in Cairo; Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad Editing by Giles Elgood and Frances Kerry

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