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Pakistan calls on Taliban to engage in talks

Pakistan publicly called on the Taliban for the first time Friday to engage the Afghan government in U.S.-backed peace talks, a potentially significant move that could help pave the way for a settlement to end the decade-long war.

Islamabad's support for the process is seen as vital because of its alleged links to the Taliban and because many of the group's leaders, including chief Mullah Omar, are believed to be based on Pakistani soil.

But the impact of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's call Friday depends on whether it is backed by the Pakistani army's shadowy intelligence agency, the ISI, which has been closest to the Taliban. It also remains to be seen just how much sway Pakistan has over the militants.

"It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan," said Gilani. "In this spirit, I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hizb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace."

Hizb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord whose ties to Pakistan date back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Another key faction is the Haqqani network, viewed by the U.S. military as the most dangerous militant group in Afghanistan. The group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is another Pakistani ally from the Soviet era and is believed to be based in the country's northwest.

Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi welcomed Gilani's statements, calling them a positive first step.

"The second step is of course to move forward, to facilitate meetings and talks between the Afghan government and the armed opposition," said Faizi.

The Pakistani prime minister's comments, which followed a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Islamabad last week, are the latest indication that momentum for peace talks is building.

The Taliban are setting up an office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. Also, the Obama administration is considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks.

But the process has been riddled by rumor, uncertainty and distrust among all the players involved, including the United States.

Karzai initially resisted the U.S.-backed move by the Taliban to set up the Qatar office because he felt the Afghan government was being sidelined.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have said they would prefer to negotiate with the United States, which has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan government.