Multilateral talks on Afghanistan peace opened in Moscow on Friday with the participation of the Taliban and the Afghanistan High Peace Council (HPC), which is said to be representing the Kabul government.
Russia invited 12 countries and the Taliban to attend the talks aimed at restoring peace to the war-torn state, but the United States and the Afghan government declined to send official delegations to Moscow.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected the invitation on the grounds that talks with the Taliban should be led by the Kabul government. But the High Peace Council, a government body overseeing peace efforts, attended the talks with four representatives, AFP reported.
The Afghan foreign ministry has emphasized that the HPC does not represent the Afghan government at the meeting, however.
Representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan arrived for the talks, officials said.
A Taliban statement described the gathering as a forum to lay out its demands for a peace process, including its objections to the presence of US and other foreign military forces in the country.
A representative from the US Embassy in Moscow was due to attend, but only as an observer, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said this week.
An HPC representative said at the conference in Moscow that the council was ready for talks with the Taliban and has asked them to pick a date to start the negotiations.
"We discussed the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and asked them to choose the place and the time of their start," council spokesman Ehsan Tahiri said, according to Russia's RIA news agency.
“We come for peace. We are the organization who works on peace. And this is the meeting also for peace, because we are the right people to come here," HPC deputy chairman Hajji Din Mohammad told reporters in Moscow.
Asked if the HPC represents the Afghani government, Din Mohammad said, "We represent all our people."
Addressing the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all the interested parties should take part in solving the Afghanistan crisis.
"Afghanistan issues can be solved solely through political means, through finding all national concord with participation of all conflicting parties. Against this backdrop we especially welcome the delegation of High Peace Council of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban,” he said.
“Their participation in today's event is aimed to make an important contribution into creating a proper environment for starting a direct dialogue between the government, the Taliban and wider representatives of the social and political circles of the country," Lavrov said.
"I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people," he said before the talks continued behind closed doors.
He emphasized that Daesh terrorists are being supported by "external sponsors" which are trying to "turn Afghanistan into a stronghold of international terrorism in central Asia."
Lavrov said that "geopolitical games" are unacceptable in order not to make Afghanistan a "rivalry field between foreign players."
This is the first time that a Taliban delegation is taking part in such high-level international meeting, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday.
The Friday talks are the second meeting of the Moscow-format consultations at the level of deputy foreign ministers and special envoys.