|Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said the council will include 'jihadi leaders, influential figures and women' [AFP]
Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, has announced that he has set up a council to pursue peace talks with the Taliban.
The formation of the High Peace Council was "a significant step towards peace talks," a statement from Karzai's office said on Saturday.
The move is one of the most significant steps Karzai has taken in his oft-stated efforts to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership aimed at speeding up an end to the country's long war.
Karzai's plan to create the council was approved in June at a "peace jirga" in Kabul attended by community, tribal, religious and political leaders from across the country.
The council was mooted as a negotiating body, to be made up of representatives of a broad section of Afghan society, to talk peace with the Taliban, who have been fighting a US-led coalition army since their regime was toppled in late 2001.
Officials met Karzai at his palace on Saturday to finalise the list of members, who will include "jihadi leaders, influential figures and women," the statement said.
The complete list of members will be announced after the Eid holiday next week, it said.
Karzai's announcement had been expected some days ago, after he met last week with Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, both former mujahedeen leaders, as well as officials, to discuss the make up of the council.
Simak Herawi, the president's spokesman, said last week that it would include "some [former] Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami members," the latter a reference to a minor armed group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and mujahedeen leader.
"This council will ... certainly be effective in decreasing the level of violence in Afghanistan," Herawi said.
Hizb-i-Islami is currently in a tenuous alliance with the Taliban, although both sides remain suspicious of each other.
Hekmatyar's power has waned over the years and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban.
Nevertheless, the group is active across part of Afghanistan's northern and eastern provinces.
The Taliban have repeatedly spurned peace overtures, deriding Karzai's government as a puppet of the United States and saying they will not talk peace until all foreign forces have left the country.
The announcement of the council's formation comes as the number of foreign troop casualties so far this year nears the 2009 toll, at 485, including the deaths on Tuesday of five US soldiers in two separate incidents.
The US and Nato have almost 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, most of them in the southern areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.