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U.S. talks to Afghan insurgent group

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Anxious to accelerate peace moves, top-level U.S. officials have held talks with a representative of an insurgent movement led by a former Afghan prime minister who has been branded a terrorist by Washington, a relative of the rebel leader says.

Dr. Ghairat Baheer, a representative and son-in-law of longtime Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, told The Associated Press this week that he had met separately with David Petraeus, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who is now CIA director, and had face-to-face discussions this month with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander there.

Baheer, who was released in 2008 after six years in U.S. detention at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, described his talks with U.S. officials as nascent and exploratory. Yet, he says the discussions show that the United States knows that in addition to getting the blessing of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, a bitter rival of Hekmatyar even though both are fighting international troops, any peace deal would have to be supported by Hekmatyar, who has thousands of fighters and followers primarily in the north and east.

Hizb-i-Islami, which means Islamic party, has had ties to al-Qaida but in 2010 floated a 15-point peace plan during informal meetings with the Afghan government in Kabul. At the time, U.S. officials refused to see the party's delegation.

"Hizb-i-Islami is a reality that no one can ignore," Baheer said during an interview last week at his spacious home in a posh suburb here. "For a while, the United States and the Kabul government tried not to give so much importance to Hizb-i-Islami, but now they have come to the conclusion that they cannot make it without Hizb-i-Islami."

In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not confirm the meetings but said the United States was maintaining "a range of contacts." A U.S. official said Petraeus last met with Baheer in July 2011.

On Saturday, President Hamid Karzai said he also had met recently with Hizb-i-Islami representatives. Baheer said he was at those meetings but considers the Afghan government corrupt and lacking legitimacy.

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