Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that he personally held peace talks recently with the insurgent faction Hizb-i-Islami, appearing to assert his own role in a U.S.-led bid for negotiations to end the country's decade-long war.
Karzai made the announcement hours before he met with American special representative Marc Grossman to discuss progress and plans for bringing the Taliban insurgency into formal talks for the first time.
"Recently, we met with a delegation from Hizb-i-Islami ... and had negotiations," Karzai told a meeting of the Afghan parliament. "We are hopeful that these negotiations for peace continue and we will have good results," he added.
Karzai's statement was a reminder that any negotiations to end Afghanistan's war will be more complex than just talking to the Taliban's Pakistan-based leadership, headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The two other main insurgent factions in the country have their own leaders and agendas.
Hizb-i-Islami is a radical Islamist militia that controls territory in Afghanistan's northeast and launches attacks against U.S. forces from Pakistan. Its leader, powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former U.S. ally now listed as a terrorist by Washington.
Based over the Pakistan border, Hekmatyar has ties to al-Qaida and has launched deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Fighters loyal to Hekmatyar also have strongholds in Baghlan, Kunduz and Kunar provinces in the north and northeast Afghanistan.
The other main insurgent group is the feared Haqqani network, which maintains close ties to both al-Qaida and the Taliban and commands the loyalties of an estimated 10,000 fighters. The Haqqanis have been blamed for a series of spectacular attacks, including suicide bombings inside Kabul.
By showing he can bring at least one major faction to the negotiating table, Karzai may hope to boost his standing in a tentative peace process that has recently been dominated by Washington. The president has met before with representatives of Hekmatyar, whose political allies hold seats in the Afghan parliament and Cabinet, but Saturday's public announcement seemed intended to bolster Karzai's insistence on inclusion in the U.S.-led peace process.
"It should be mentioned that the Afghan nation is the owner of the peace process and negotiations," Karzai said. "No foreign country or organization can prevent (Afghans) from exercising this right."
The U.S. has repeatedly said that formal negotiations must be Afghan-led, but Karzai is reportedly uneasy with his government not being directly involved in recent preliminary talks with Taliban representatives.
U.S. representative Grossman began meeting with Karzai on Saturday, the U.S. Embassy said.
Grossman, however, stressed that any future negotiations would include Afghanistan's government.
"After our meeting with President Karzai, we will decide what to do next because we take his guidance and advice in an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process," Grossman said Friday during a stop in India.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet also arrived in Kabul on Saturday for talks with Afghan officials after Paris suspended training missions following the killing of four French troops by an Afghan soldier, the latest in a rising number of assaults in which Afghan security forces or infiltrators have turned their guns on coalition forces.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan early over the deaths, a potential setback for the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to build a national army and allow foreign troops to go home.
After a briefing with an Afghan general, Longuet said in footage broadcast on France's LCI TV that the killer was a 21-year-old former soldier "who deserted, who went to Pakistan, who re-engaged in the Afghan army."
Earlier in the day, the French defense minister said his mission in Kabul is to "evaluate the attitude our officials should take" in the future.
On Saturday, insurgents killed a NATO service member in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said. The statement gave no other details, nor the nationality of the casualty.
Insurgents clashed Saturday with government forces in the town of Barmal in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, said Maj. Abdul Rahman, who coordinates coalition and Afghan operations in the area.
The Paktika governor's office said four attackers were trying to enter the town's main bazaar and then move toward government offices and military bases nearby. Before they could, Afghan security forces engaged them in a one-hour gun battle and all four attackers were killed, it said.
Separately, a roadside bomb killed four Afghan civilians Saturday morning in Helmand province in the south, the Interior Ministry said.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.