Warlord givesup rebellion, putting Taliban on road to peace

One of the Taliban's most senior and charismatic commanders has become a key negotiator as more and more members of the Islamic militia in Afghanistan give up the fight against the Americans

The commander, Abdul Salam, earned the nickname Mullah Rockety because he was so accurate with rocket propelled grenades against Russian troops.

He later joined the Taliban as a corps commander in Jalalabad before being captured by the Americans after September 11.

Now he is a supporter of President Hamid Karzai and is tempting diehard Taliban fighters to accept an amnesty offer and reconcile themselves to Afghanistan's first directly elected leader.

"The Taliban has lost its morale," he said, speaking by satellite phone from the heartlands of Zabul province, a Taliban redoubt.

"But you have to go and find the Taliban and call to them and ask them directly. If they believe they will be secure and safe they will come down from the mountains."

After the Taliban's three-year struggle against a superior US force, there is growing optimism among the Americans and Afghan government that the end is close.

More than 1,000 people have died in violence in the past 18 months, but attacks have tailed off since the guerrillas failed to make good their vow to disrupt the presidential election in October, which saw a huge turnout and was won by Mr Karzai.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, said yesterday that a group of Taliban militia including senior officials will soon join the Afghan government's peace initiative.

"They are in Kabul seeking peace and to boost the reconciliation process," he said, adding that he was hopeful that the Taliban surrender would take place before the parliamentary elections, expected in the summer.

Afghan officials claimed in recent days that four unnamed senior figures from the former Taliban government have accepted the US-backed offer of amnesty extended to them by Mr Karzai's government and will form a new party for the elections.

"This step is a great encouragement to other Taliban to end their struggle," said Mullah Rockety. "I have said to the Taliban that now is the time for unity, the time for Afghan brother to stop killing Afghan brother."

He claimed that negotiations are close to success with Mullah Mohammed Ghaus, the former Taliban foreign affairs minister,.

The amnesty offer is expected to be available to all but Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, and a list of about 150 named Taliban suspected of war crimes and links to al-Qa'eda.

Mullah Khaksar Akhund, once the Taliban deputy interior minister, said: "This [reconciliation] is a very good step for the people of Afghanistan. It is very good that the Karzai government has chosen to negotiate with the Taliban.

"The government should not consist of one party, everybody has the right to a part of the government."

A British embassy spokesman said: "We are welcoming President Karzai's attempts at reconciliation. It is for the Afghan government to decide to which individuals to offer the reconciliation package."

A spokesman for Mullah Omar denied that the Taliban would lay down their arms.

"Karzai and the Americans have been speaking about these so-called negotiations for the past 16 months," said Abdul Latif Hakimi.

"It is psychological warfare aimed at creating a rift among the Taliban."

He blamed Taliban inactivity on extreme winter weather and promised a spring offensive against US troops.

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