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Karzai visits Saudi Arabia in Taliban "peace bid"

Afghan leader seeks Saudi help on peace talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday after the U.S.-backed leader called on the oil-rich kingdom to help bring about peace with the Taliban.

"The president will meet with the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, on Wednesday," presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi earlier told AFP.

He did not give further details but Karzai has long called on Saudi Arabia to use its influence to persuade the Islamist Taliban rebels to lay down their arms and join a peace initiative.

"To make our program a success we hope that His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will kindly play a role to guide peace and assist the process," he told an international conference in London last week.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to recognize Afghanistan's 1996-2001 Taliban government, which was toppled by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Karzai won backing for a new peace and reconciliation program with the Taliban at the London conference, which aimed to lay down a roadmap for the war-torn country's future.

Reconciliation offer

If the plan is successful, Taliban fighters who renounce violence will be provided with opportunities such as jobs and protection, according to officials.

Karzai stressed he plans to reconcile with Taliban leaders as much as they are willing, but he made clear his offer of reconciliation did not extend to anyone in al-Qaeda, saying there was no room in Afghanistan for terrorists.

"We are trying our best to reach as high as possible to bring peace and security," Karzai said in his first news conference since returning from London.

Karzai declined to say if he planned to discuss the new reconciliation plan with the Saudis.

"The role of Saudi Arabia is extremely important for Afghanistan," Karzai said. "This role we're seeking is not only for talks with the Taliban. It's a broader role that we're seeking, which is for peace-building in Afghanistan, for improved relations with our nations and for reconstruction and assistance."

Saudi Arabia pledged an additional $150 million in aid to Afghanistan at the London conference.

Casualties among Afghan civilians and foreign troops reached record levels last year as Afghan and international forces fought a resurgent Taliban. Western nations, who have more than 110,000 troops in Afghanistan, have said the war cannot be won militarily and talks will have to be held eventually.

Taliban leaders have insisted all Western forces must withdraw from Afghanistan before they will agree to talks. On Sunday, Karzai rejected that precondition, saying the Taliban should help make peace first so that the troops can leave.

The role of Saudi Arabia is extremely important for Afghanistan. This role we're seeking is not only for talks with the Taliban. It's a broader role that we're seeking, which is for peace-building in Afghanistan, for improved relations with our nations and for reconstruction and assistance

Afghan President Hamid Karzai