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Senior figure in Afghan government peace council assassinated

May 13, 2012 |  3:08 am

Afghanspan
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A senior member of the Afghan government body set up to negotiate with the Taliban -- and a former member of the Taliban himself -- was shot and killed Sunday in the Afghan capital.

The killing of Arsala Rahmani, coming less than nine months after the assassination of the head of the High Peace Council, casts yet another layer of gloom over Western-backed efforts to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table. The Obama administration had hoped to have progress to show when a NATO summit convenes later this month in Chicago.

Rahmani, who traveled without a bodyguard, was gunned down while riding in his car on a busy thoroughfare, on his way to a work meeting, said Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police chief. No one else was injured, and the assailant or assailants escaped.

The Taliban, unusually, issued a quick denial of responsibility for the killing. "We deny any kind of involvement," said spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, contacted by telephone.

The High Peace Council was created by President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to try to inaugurate talks with the Taliban. But the efforts have foundered, particularly in the wake of the killing last September of the council’s head, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Rahmani was one of the council’s leading members, and his participation was considered crucial because of his past links with the Taliban and his continuing familiarity with the thinking of the movement’s leadership.

Hopes for launching peace talks with the Taliban were high at the beginning of the year, when the group declared its willingness to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate contacts with the United States. But in March the Taliban leadership said it was cutting off contacts, citing bad faith on the side of the U.S.

Preliminary talks apparently foundered over a prisoner exchange meant to build confidence on both sides. The family of the only known American soldier held captive by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, recently complained that not enough was being done to secure his freedom. The Taliban in turn has accused the Americans of failing to follow through on the handing over of several senior insurgents held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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Photo: At left, an Afghan soldier patrols outside the military hospital after Arsala Rahmani, right, a former Taliban official turned Afghan peace negotiator, was gunned down in western Kabul. Credits: Rahmat Gul / Associated Press; Massoud Hossaini / AFP

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