KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that he personally held peace talks recently with the insurgent faction Hizb-i-Islami, appearing to assert his own role in a U.S.-led bid for negotiations to end the country's decade-long war.
Karzai made the announcement hours before he was to meet with American special representative Marc Grossman to discuss progress and plans for bringing the Taliban insurgency into formal talks for the first time.
"Recently, we met with a delegation from Hizb-i-Islami ... and had negotiations," Karzai told a meeting of the Afghan parliament, adding, "We are hopeful that these negotiations for peace continue and we will have good results."
Hizb-i-Islami is a radical Islamist militia that controls territory in Afghanistan's northeast and launches attacks against U.S. forces from Pakistan. Its leader, powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former U.S. ally now listed as a terrorist by Washington.
The president has met before with representatives of Hekmatyar, whose political allies hold seats in the Afghan parliament and Cabinet, but Saturday's public announcement seemed intended to bolster Karzai's insistence on inclusion in the U.S.-led peace process.
Karzai's statement was also a reminder that any negotiations to end Afghanistan's war will be more complex than just talking to the Taliban's Pakistan-based leadership, headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Hizb-i-Islami, also based over the Pakistan border, has ties to al-Qaida and has launched deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Fighters loyal to Hekmatyar also have strongholds in Baghlan, Kunduz and Kunar provinces in the north and northeast Afghanistan.
There is also the feared Haqqani network, which maintains close ties to both al-Qaida and the Taliban and commands the loyalties of an estimated 10,000 fighters. The Haqqanis have been blamed for a series of spectacular attacks, including suicide bombings inside Kabul.
By showing he can bring at least one major faction to the negotiating table, Karzai may hope to increase his standing in a tentative peace process that has recently been dominated by Washington. The U.S. has repeatedly said that formal negotiations must be Afghan-led, but Karzai is reportedly uneasy with his government not being directly involved in recent preliminary talks with Taliban representatives.
"It should be mentioned that the Afghan nation is the owner of the peace process and negotiations," Karzai said. "No foreign country or organization can prevent (Afghans) from exercising this right."
U.S. representative Grossman recently stressed that any future negotiations would include Afghanistan's government, and said he would meet Karzai on Saturday.
"After our meeting with President Karzai, we will decide what to do next because we take his guidance and advice in an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process," Grossman said Friday at a stop in India.
The Taliban have vowed to keep fighting as they explore a possible political resolution to the war.
Insurgents clashed Saturday with government forces in the town of Barmal in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, said Maj. Abdul Rahman, who coordinates coalition and Afghan operations in the area.
Afghan security forces killed two of the attackers and recovered their guns and a rocket-propelled grenade, he said. Two other attackers wearing suicide bomb vests moved in, but their explosives detonated prematurely and both died at the scene. One civilian was wounded in the attack, he said.
The Paktika governor's office said four attackers were trying to enter the town's main bazaar and then move toward government offices and military bases nearby. Before they could, Afghan security forces engaged them in a one-hour gun battle and all four attackers were killed, it said.
Separately, four Afghan civilians were killed Saturday morning when their truck struck a roadside bomb near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, the Ministry of Interior said.
On Friday, insurgents attacked Afghan border policemen in the Gulran district of Herat province near the Iranian border in western Afghanistan, said Sulaiman Khan, commander of a border police rapid reaction unit in the area.
He said four border policemen were killed immediately when their vehicle was attacked by militants firing from several different directions, and a fifth died on Saturday.