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Western Diplomats In Humanitarian Talks With Taliban In Oslo

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Representatives of the Taliban arrive for talks in Gardermoen, Norway, on January 22.

Taliban representatives held talks with Western diplomats in Norway on January 24 on Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis and human rights -- their first official meeting in Europe since the hard-line Islamist group took over control of the war-torn country in August 2021.

On the second day of the 15-member delegation’s three-day visit to Oslo, its members held closed-door discussions with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the European Union, and Norway, as a major economic crisis has pushed millions of Afghans to the brink of famine since the Taliban takeover.

The all-male delegation, led by Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, was expected to request access to billions of dollars in assets that were frozen after the group seized power in the midst of the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

No country has yet recognized Afghanistan’s new rulers, whom human rights defenders accuse of committing serious violations, particularly over the lack of rights of women to education, employment, and participation in political and social life.

Muttaqi hailed the Oslo meeting as an "achievement in itself," while Norway’s invitation was criticized by some experts and Afghan exile groups, who said any cooperation with the Taliban would only serve to strengthen its position. Protests have been held outside the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

But Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said “1 million children may die of hunger if aid does not reach them in time and an unfathomable 97 percent of the population may fall below the poverty line this year" as the country is being overwhelmed by an economic collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic, and drought.

Huitfeldt had earlier stressed that the talks were “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban.”

The Taliban delegation will not be granted meetings with cabinet-level ministers, but may meet with a junior minister, Norway has said.

Afghanistan faces a worsening humanitarian crisis, with 22.8 million people suffering from acute food shortages and 8.7 million near starvation, according to the UN.

Since August, international aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, has been suspended and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in Afghan Central Bank assets. Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants' salaries have not been paid for months.

The Taliban's Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said the discussions in Oslo focused on issues including the economy, humanitarian aid, security, the central bank, and health.

"From these meetings, we are sure of getting support for Afghanistan's humanitarian, health, and education sectors," Muttaqi told reporters.

Ahead of the talks, Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam said that the group is “requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse.”

On January 23, the Taliban delegation met with Afghan civil society members for talks on human rights.

Feminist activist Jamila Afghani told AFP that the meeting was positive. The negotiators "displayed goodwill.... Let's see what their actions will be, based on their words," she added.

While the Islamists claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment, and most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Two women activists disappeared this week in Kabul.

Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on January 23: "As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief [organizations], we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan."

Among the members of the delegation is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the Haqqani network, which is responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan. The network has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa
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