Afghan government nears peace deal with militant group

KONFRONTASI-A draft agreement that could lead to a peace deal between the Afghan government and a militant group linked by Washington to the Taliban and al Qaeda will be signed on Wednesday, a senior official said.

Hezb-e-Islami, whose leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a veteran of decades of Afghan war and on the U.S. government's designated terrorist list, has played only a minor role in the insurgency in recent years and the deal is unlikely to have any immediate practical impact on security.

But with little sign that the Taliban are ready to join peace talks, the deal offers President Ashraf Ghani's government a concrete sign that it is making headway in drawing insurgent groups away from the battlefield and into the political process.

Mohammad Khan, deputy to government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, said the draft would be signed later on Wednesday by a delegation from Hekmatyar's party and officials from Afghanistan's High Peace Council but more work would be needed for a final deal.

"We are optimistic about this agreement and we strongly support it," he told reporters in Kabul but added: "This doesn't mean it's finalised."

The announcement came as officials from Pakistan, the United States, China and Afghanistan held another round of meetings, in Pakistan, aimed at laying the ground for peace talks with the Taliban, who have refused to join the talks.

Human rights groups have criticized the move toward a deal with Hekmatyar's group, which is accused of widespread abuses, particularly during civil war in the early 1990s, when he briefly served as prime minister.

But the pressure on the government for some sign of progress in bringing peace appears to have outweighed their concerns.

Under the terms of the draft agreement, members of Hezb-e-Islami would be offered an amnesty, similar to that offered in 2007 to warlords accused of war crimes as well as a release of prisoners held by Afghan authorities.

The Afghan government would also work to have the group removed from a U.N. black list.

The group, which for years had close ties with Pakistan, would not join the government but would be recognized as a political party and be involved in major political decisions.

In 2003, the State Department included Hekmatyar on its designated terrorist list, accusing him of participating in and supporting terrorist acts by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

His group was most recently blamed for a 2013 suicide attack in Kabul, in which two U.S. soldiers and four U.S. civilian contractors as well as eight Afghans were killed.[mr/reuters]