Afghan govt rejects preconditions for Taliban talks

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KABUL, Sep 18 (Reuters) The Afghan government is ready for peace talks with the Taliban, but will not accept preconditions demanded by the Islamist rebels such as the withdrawal of all foreign troops, a presidential spokesman said today.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeated his call to Taliban insurgents to enter peace negotiations in a speech he made on the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

But the Taliban said they would only accept talks if all of the roughly 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan left first, a new constitution was accepted and a stricter interpretation of Islamic law imposed.

''The Afghan government is not open to negotiations with any preconditions, we are not going to have any preconditions,'' presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada told a news conference.

The only promise the government would give the Taliban ahead of any talks was a guarantee for the safety of rebel negotiators.

The Taliban said they were sticking to their demands.

''Our position is very clear - the withdrawal of the foreign troops is a must, also the imposition of real Islamic law and the re-writing of the constitution,'' Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location.

''As long as foreign forces are in Afghanistan, negotiations are useless,'' he said. ''We don't want to talk to foreigners, we want to talk to Afghans to bring peace and security ... As long as foreign forces are present, Afghanistan will never be peaceful.'' INSURGENCY SPREADS The last two years have seen a steady rise in violence across Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency has spread from the south to many areas previously considered safe.

The expansion of Taliban areas of operations comes despite heavy losses inflicted on their forces by the Afghan army and mostly Western forces.

Analysts say frustration with the lack of security, the slow pace of development, official corruption and anger over civilian casualties feeds Taliban support.

An outright military victory over the Taliban is also unlikely, so the best Karzai's government and its Western backers can hope for is some form of accommodation with the Taliban that splits them from their al Qaeda allies, diplomats say.

Afghan and US-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in 2001 after it refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

After their defeat, the Taliban regrouped in the mountains along the border with Pakistan or in large parts of Afghanistan left untouched by the small US-led invasion force -- places the new Afghan government also lacked the manpower to control.

The Taliban has also adapted more sophisticated tactics imported by al Qaeda fighters from Iraq such as suicide attacks and roadside bombs meant to convince Afghans that the government and Western troops cannot bring security.

REUTERS ARB KP1745

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