By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - A small but significant militant faction on Thursday joined Afghanistan's fledgling peace process, a rare positive for an initiative that has been fraught with false starts and publicly rejected by the main Taliban insurgency.
The announcement marked the first success for the renewed effort, aided by the U.S., China and Pakistan, to end nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan that kills and maims hundreds of people each month.
Representatives of Hizb-i-Islami, an Islamist militant movement of several hundred fighters led by Soviet-era Afghan war hero Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appeared at a press briefing with members of the High Peace Council, which oversees the peace process.
"Today we held our first intra-Afghan dialogue in the presence of High Peace Council leadership," said Mohammad Ayoub Rafiq, the council's head of secretariat.
"May God help us to progress on the path of peace."
The head of the Hizb-i-Islami delegation, Karim Amin, said he hoped other anti-government fighters would be inspired by the "selflessness" of his movement and join the process, although there was no mention of the group surrendering arms yet.
Loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami fighters are believed to be active in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar, Nuristan, Ghazni and Logar provinces.
The movement also has a political party with members in parliament and government, and wields influence because of the fearsome reputation of its founder and leader.
Hekmatyar became a hero to many Afghans while leading mujahideen fighters against the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s.
A former Afghan prime minister, he took up arms against the new government in Kabul after the 2001 U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime.
Hekmatyar left Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is believed to be in Pakistan, although his exact location is unknown.
Small groups of Hizb-i-Islami have defected to Afghanistan's government in the past, but the main leadership's decision to join formal peace talks marked a milestone for the process.
The Taliban's leadership, however, earlier this month rejected an invitation to join direct talks with the Afghan government in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Though it is one of several armed anti-government factions and its own leadership is fractured, the Taliban are responsible for most of the attacks in Afghanistan.
The movement intensified its offensive last year, the first in which Afghanistan's armed forces and police were fighting without NATO combat troops who withdrew at the end of 2014.
In October, the Taliban captured the northern provincial capital of Kunduz, the first major city to fall to the insurgents since 2001. Afghan forces backed by U.S. air power took back the city after a week of intense fighting.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)