Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha for talks on Saturday, AFP correspondents say, as violence rages in the country with foreign forces almost completely back.
The two sides have been meeting on and off for several months in the Qatari capital, but talks have lost momentum as the rebels have made the battlefield gains.
Several high-ranking officials, including former Afghan former CEO Abdullah Abdullah, gathered at a luxury hotel on Saturday after morning prayers.
They were joined by negotiators from the Taliban’s political office in Doha.
Former President Hamid Karzai had also been on his way to Doha but stayed in Kabul, according to a source.
“The High Level Delegation is here to talk to both sides, guide them and support the (government) negotiating team in speeding up the talks and making progress,” said Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the Afghan government’s negotiating team in Doha.
“We expect that it will (will) speed up the talks and … in a short time, both sides will reach a conclusion and we will witness a lasting and dignified peace in Afghanistan,” she told AFP.
‘Ready for dialogue’
The Taliban have used the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country.
“We are ready for dialogue, for talks and negotiations, and our priority is to resolve the issues through dialogue,” spokesman spokesman Muhamad Naeem told the Al Jazeera broadcaster before Saturday’s talks.
“The other side must have a true and sincere desire to end the problems.”
Talks between the government and the Taliban side led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar began with Quran recitations, Naeem tweeted on Saturday.
Pakistan on Saturday partially opened its side of the southern border crossing with Afghanistan, closed after the Taliban took control of the strategic Afghan border town of Spin Boldak from government forces last week.
Muhammad Tayyab, a local paramilitary official, said the decision was made because of “relative calm on the other side”, but that the intersection would remain closed to trade.
The Taliban have also tightened their grip on the north, and clashes continue on Saturday in the fortress of the infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, which borders Turkmenistan.
Also on Saturday, the French government flew out about 100 of its citizens and Afghans working for the embassy from the capital, as security deteriorated, a French diplomatic source said.
Several other countries, including India, China, Germany and Canada, have flown out their citizens or asked them to leave in recent days.
There have been weeks of intensified fighting over Afghanistan, with the Taliban pushing several offensives and surpassing dozens of districts at a dizzying pace.
As fighting raged across large parts of Afghanistan, a war of words also erupted between Kabul and Islamabad, after the Afghan vice president accused the Pakistani military of providing “close air support to the Taliban in certain areas”.
Pakistan strongly denied the allegations in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry saying that it had “taken the necessary measures within its territory to protect our own troops and population”.
Islamabad had called a conference with regional leaders to address the burgeoning violence.
Instead, it announced that it would delay the summit until after the Muslim Eid al-Adha celebration, due to the fact that it starts next week at the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage, making it possible for the Doha gathering.
Afghanistan’s southern border has long been a hotspot in relations with its eastern neighbor.
Pakistan’s Balochistan province has been home to the Taliban’s top leadership for decades, along with a large contingent of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to strengthen their ranks.
Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for almost two decades after the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
They have largely emerged from the picture in recent months, but fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.
The speed and scale of the Taliban attack has caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears to be aimed at forcing the government to negotiate the terms of the uprising or suffer a complete military defeat.