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Karzai Meets with Taliban-Allied Insurgent Group

spokesman for President Hamid Karzai says the Afghan leader has met with a delegation of Hezb-e-Islami, one of the major insurgent groups fighting Afghan and coalition forces.

Haroun Zarghoun is a spokesman for Hezb-e-Islami's fugitive leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

He tells VOA the group wants foreign forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan this July, as opposed to the middle of next year. He says the withdrawal should last six months and his group in the meantime will support the current government and parliament until a provisional administration is formed once the foreign troops leave.

After that, Zarghoun says his group wants presidential and parliamentary polls in March 2011.

Despite the specific demands, Zarghoun says his group is open to negotiations to find a middle ground with the government for the sake of establishing peace.

Speaking from Kabul, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, Haroun Mir, says it is unlikely that the demands will be met.

"These are outrageous demands, but they do not want to show that they are in a very weak position. I am pretty sure that ultimately, they will settle [for] a few positions within the government," he said.

Mir also says he believes the group wants the international community to remove its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, from lists of those belonging to terrorist networks.

He says Hezb-e-Islami traces its origins to student groups at Afghan universities in the late 1970s and that Mr. Karzai already has placed several former members within his administration.

President Karzai plans to hold a three-day peace conference at the end of April in Kabul to discuss reintegrating insurgents into civilian life.

Mir says he believes Mr. Karzai's meeting with Hezb-e-Islami is in the best interest for the Afghan government.

"I think it is good to bring everybody back [to] the negotiation table, because if we could not reach out to them, then certainly either Pakistan or Iran will make efficient use of these groups," said Mir.

Daoud Sultanzoy is a member of the Afghan Parliament. He tells VOA that he welcomes Hezb-e-Islami's willingness to negotiate, but he says after eight years of the current conflict, the Afghan people expect more than just words.

"All these jihadi groups, so-called, have a burden to change their behavior, change their doctrine, change their vision and change their structures. The people of Afghanistan want to see tangible changes," said Sultanzoy.

Analysts say President Karzai's meeting with the Hezb-e-Islami delegation in Kabul is his first direct contact with the group.