KABUL - Members of Afghanistan's warring sides gathered near Paris on Thursday to begin informal talks about the country's future as U.S. and NATO forces pull out.
It was the first time that senior figures in the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami insurgent groups were to meet with Afghan government officials and members of the former Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for years.
Organizers of the two-day gathering, which is being hosted by a French think tank, hope it will generate helpful discussions but have said there will not be negotiations for a peace deal.
International efforts to bring the Taliban and other opponents of the Afghan government to the bargaining table are intensifying amid fears that the country could slide into civil war after the departure of most foreign troops by the end of 2014. U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating conditions for the presence of American forces to train, advise and assist after combat troops withdraw.
Britain announced this week that it would withdraw nearly half its 9,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year; France pulled out the last of its combat troops Saturday.
Officials with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, which organized two previous rounds of lower-level talks with the support of the French Foreign Ministry, confirmed that the meeting had begun. But they declined to provide details, including which participants were present, until the discussions are over.
"The goal is to get them round a table and get them talking," foundation director Camille Grand told Reuters news agency this week. "Being away from Afghanistan should make it easier to have a discussion."
The initiative has the support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said government spokesman Siamak Herawi, who expressed hope that such meetings would "open the door for more negotiations regarding a permanent peace and stability for the country."
The Taliban has refused to negotiate with Karzai's government, which it derides as a "puppet" regime. Taliban representatives would be at the talks to communicate the Taliban's point of view, a spokesman for the movement said last week.
"No political deals will be made with anyone," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.
Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former Taliban spokesman, said the decision to send two senior leaders, Mawlavi Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak, indicated that the militant group considered the talks significant.
"What happens on the margins of this kind of negotiations is very important," he said. "They can talk to each other and exchange views.... I think slowly, slowly we are going to have peace negotiations."
Other observers were more cautious, saying the ability of such initiatives to deliver progress remains to be seen.
Also Thursday, police in Afghanistan's southern Nimruz province reported that a roadside bomb struck one of their vehicles in the city of Zaranj, killing three of members of their force and five civilians.
Provincial Police Chief Gen. Abdul Jabar Pordeli blamed the Taliban for the attack, which also injured a policewoman.