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US, Taliban close to 'reduction in violence' agreement

Islamabad: The Taliban have issued an ultimatum to Washington after weeks of talks with a US peace envoy, demanding a reply on their offer of a seven-day reduction of violence in Afghanistan, or they would walk away from the negotiating table, two Taliban officials said Wednesday.

The development comes as Washington said late Tuesday that an agreement on the insurgents' reduction of violence offer was days away.

Also, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had received a phone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling him of notable progress in the talks with the Taliban.

The ultimatum came from the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met earlier this week with White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, according to two Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media.

There was no immediate response from Washington on the ultimatum, which appeared designed to focus the negotiations on Taliban demands.

The Taliban maintain a political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, where Khalilzad often meets their representatives in the talks that are seeking to find a resolution to Afghanistan's 18-year war, America's longest conflict.

President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, said Tuesday he is cautiously optimistic that there could be a US agreement with the Taliban over the next days or weeks, but a withdrawal of American forces is not imminent.

The agreement, which Trump would still have to sign off on, calls for both Taliban and US forces to pledge to adhere to a reduction of violence that would lead to an agreement signing between the United States and the Taliban.

That would be followed, within 10 days, by all-Afghan negotiations to set the road map for the political future of a post-war Afghanistan.

The details emerging from Washington on the agreement are similar to details released weeks earlier by Taliban spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, and would appear to give the Taliban all they have asked for. Another Taliban demand is that in any all-Afghan negotiations, representatives of President Ghani's government cannot come to the table in an official capacity but only as ordinary Afghan citizens.

The Taliban do not recognise the government in Kabul and have refused to negotiate directly with Ghani. Ghani, whose political future remains uncertain following last September's presidential election, which still has no official winner, has previously demanded that the Taliban negotiate with his government.

His political opponents, other prominent Afghans and his partner in the so-called Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, have sharply criticised Ghani's intransigence and accused him of trying to sideline their involvement in the peace process.

Ghani has also blasted the reduction of violence offer, demanding a permanent cease-fire and a halt in the near-daily attacks by the Taliban.

The Taliban have refused, saying they first want agreements in place that would be guaranteed by international powers such as Gulf Arab states, Russia, China and the UN before agreeing to a permanent cease-fire.

The reduction of violence" deal would call for the Taliban and US to refrain from conducting attacks or combat operations for seven days, according to a person familiar with the ongoing discussions who was not authorised to discuss the proposal and spoke only on condition of anonymity. Asked about whether Trump would sign off on such an agreement, O'Brien said there has been significant progress" in the months-long on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban and that the US is cautiously optimistic that some good news could be

forthcoming."

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