Afghan government negotiators have arrived in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to join U.S.-brokered talks with the Taliban, as efforts intensify to negotiate an end to Afghanistan's 17-year war.
The three-day talks that started on December 17 are seen as an important step to launch formal peace negotiations with the militant group.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the U.A.E. -- countries that have significant influence over the Taliban -- are also participating in the talks.
It was not clear what has been discussed, although previous talks have focused on proposals for a cease-fire in Afghanistan and the future withdrawal of foreign forces. The militants have previously asked for the release of Taliban prisoners and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Kabul’s chief negotiator, Abdul Salam Rahimi, met with U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Abu Dhabi on December 18, Afghan presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri said in statement.
Chakhansuri said government negotiators will "begin proximity dialogue with the Taliban delegation and prepare for a face-to-face meeting between the two sides."
Omid Meysam, a spokesman for Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, said the "possibility of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan delegation is high."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that the militant group would meet with the Afghan delegation.
"Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration whatsoever," Mujahid said in a statement.
The Taliban has long refused to hold formal talks with the Afghan government, insisting on first brokering an agreement with the United States.
Mujahid said Taliban representatives held talks with Khalilzad and officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. on December 17 and that the discussions would continue.
While Washington did not confirm direct meetings between Khalilzad and the Taliban, the U.S. envoy has previously held at least two rounds of talks with Taliban officials.
Khalilzad has said he would like to see a "road map" agreement reached before the Afghan presidential election scheduled for April.
The decision to move the venue of the talks from Qatar to the U.A.E. was seen as an effort to involve Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to Qatar, more closely in the process and to exert influence on its ally, Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Pakistan were the only three countries to recognize the Taliban government during its five-year rule, which ended following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghanistan, where it is waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government and government security forces.