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UN Afghan talks open in Germany; Annan urges sides to seize 'historic' chance

UN Afghan talks open in Germany; Annan urges sides to seize 'historic' chance

As four Afghan factions began United Nations-sponsored talks in Germany today, Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the sides to seize this historic opportunity to start the process of finally achieving peace and national reconciliation in the war-torn country.

"You must place the interests of your people first, above all other concerns," Mr. Annan said in a message to the gathering, which brings together representatives from the Northern Alliance, the Cyprus Group, the Rome Group and the Peshawar Group. "Only then will this process - this attempt to break the cycle of misery and destitution, conflict and violence - stand a chance of success."

Mr. Annan's message was delivered by his Special Representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who opened the talks at the outset of an hour-long plenary session in the historic Petersberg hotel outside Bonn.

In his message, the Secretary-General warned the Afghan leaders against repeating past mistakes, particularly those made in 1992. "To many sceptics, it appears that that is precisely what you are about to do," he said. "You must prove them wrong, and show that you can choose the path of compromise over conflict."

Underscoring that Afghanistan would have the support of the international community free of any coercion, Mr. Annan pointed that it was not the role or desire of the UN to impose any particular arrangement on the Afghan people. "These are decisions for Afghans to make, and the United Nations' role is to assist in this process," he said.

The international community could only assist Afghanistan in the "monumental" task of its recovery by working with an Afghan government, Mr. Annan stressed. He added that a critical responsibility for that government would be to respect and uphold the human rights of all its citizens, making sure that previously excluded groups, particularly women, were full participants.

In his statement during the opening session, the Foreign Minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, told the Afghan sides they had to take charge of Afghanistan's future. "The responsibility is yours," he said. "No one can relieve you of it, and no one wants to." He said the international community was prepared to help Afghanistan, but emphasized that "this readiness is linked with clear expectations," including agreement on a broad-based, representative transitional government and respect for human rights.

Mr. Fischer also sought to allay concerns that international interest in Afghanistan would soon wane. "We want the people of Afghanistan to know that they will not e left on their own when the conflict with the Al-Qaida terrorists and the Taliban regime comes to an end," he said.

After the opening meeting, which was made public to the diplomatic observers and reporters and included statements by the four Afghan parties, the Afghan and UN delegates went into a closed plenary session. In the afternoon, the groups began bilateral discussions. According to a UN spokesman, Mr. Brahimi and his deputy Francesc Vendrell were expected to be shuttling back and forth between the four groups.

The participants have agreed to a three-point agenda, UN officials said. The first item on the "Structure and duration of the transition" covers the formation of a cabinet-style interim administration and of a larger parliamentary-style interim Supreme Council, as well as the convening of an emergency Loya Jirga, the traditional assembly of elders. The second agenda item deals with measures to ensure security for the people of Afghanistan, with "other matters" comprising the third item.