Direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could begin in Norway within the next two weeks, officials and sources said Saturday, marking a potentially crucial step in efforts to end the war.
The Taliban have so far refused to speak to the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they see as illegitimate, except for at a recent summit where Ghani officials attended in a "personal capacity".
"We are preparing for direct talks," said Abdul Salam Rahimi, the state minister for peace affairs, noting that the government would be represented by a 15-member delegation.
"We are working with all sides and hope that in the next two weeks the first meeting will take place in a European country."
He did not specify where the summit might take place, but diplomatic sources told AFP the talks were scheduled to begin in Oslo on August 7. The sources said the international community and the Afghan government were still awaiting word from the Taliban.
Ghani and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed in a telephone call Wednesday that "now is the time to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan", according to a joint statement.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading a push to forge a peace deal with the Taliban, has spent the past several days in Kabul, where he met with Ghani and US officials.
He is expected to fly to Doha next week for what would be an eighth round of direct US-Taliban talks. The two foes claim progress in reaching a deal that would end America's nearly 18-year military involvement in Afghanistan.
Washington has said it wants to see a deal inked by September 1, but any deal requires the Taliban to talk to Kabul.
The apparent development comes after Taliban negotiators sat with Afghan representatives at a so-called intra-Afghan dialogue brokered by Germany in Doha this month.
The Afghan stakeholders had agreed to attend in a "personal capacity" so the Taliban can continue to insist it is not talking directly to the Kabul administration.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP any new talks would only begin after a deal has been forged with the US, and he reiterated the insurgents' long-held position that they would "not talk to the Kabul administration as a government".
Rahimi said the next delegation would include some of those who went to Doha, as well as religious scholars, women and other members of civil society.
Meanwhile, the war rages across Afghanistan, with the Taliban, the US and Afghan forces all fighting at an increased tempo.
At least three police officers were killed and a dozen more wounded Saturday when a Taliban suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed, US-made armoured vehicle into a compound in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.
On Thursday, three blasts rocked Kabul, killing at least 10 people and wounding scores more, even as US and Afghan officials pledged to speed up their efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.
The Taliban have so far refused to speak to the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they see as illegitimate, except for at a recent summit where Ghani officials attended in a 'personal capacity'