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Key Afghan peace negotiator killed in Kabul

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 7:48 p.m.

KABUL — A former Taliban leader-turned peace negotiator was assassinated on Sunday by three unidentified gunmen in a brazen attack in the Afghan capital, hours before leaders here announced the next phase in the country's security transition.

Arsala Rahmani, 70, was gunned down while traveling through central Kabul. He was a key member of the High Peace Council, a group responsible for managing the reconciliation process with the insurgency. As a former Taliban deputy minister, he was considered by many to be an important conduit between fighters and the Afghan government. His death, less than a year after the assassination of the council's leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani — is considered a blow to the fledgling peace process.

"It is a big loss for Afghanistan. He was thinking about peace and about key national issues," said Nisar Hares, a lawmaker and close colleague of Rahmani, who maintained a seat in the senate while serving on the High Peace Council.

The council was envisioned as the public face of the Afghan reconciliation process. President Hamid Karzai appointed former Talibs, like Rahmani, as well as fixtures in the Afghan government like Rabbani, an ex-president, in an effort to depict the council as a model of conflict resolution.

The assassination of both men highlights the fierce opposition among some insurgents to a diplomatic solution. Formal peace negotiations with the Taliban stalled earlier this year, and High Peace Council members have attempted to rekindle the reconciliation process, but without much success. Rahmani's death could complicate those efforts, just weeks after Rabbani's son, Salahuddin Rabbani, was named as the council's new leader, promising a fresh start.

Rahmani, a tall, willowy man who often wore wide-rimmed glasses, died on the way to the hospital, according to General Mohammad Zaher, chief of the criminal branch of the Kabul police.

No group has claimed responsibility for the killing. A Taliban spokesman said the group was not behind it, but last month the Taliban released a statement saying its members planned to target members of the High Peace Council as part of a "spring offensive."

The U.S. Embassy described the assassination as a tragedy.

A veteran of the war during the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, Rahmani served as a deputy minister for higher and vocational education during the Taliban government.

He was among a small group of former Taliban leaders who decided not to join the insurgency after U.S.-led Afghan forces toppled the Taliban's government from power in 2001. In recent years, Rahmani attempted to use his influence and contacts to establish a dialogue between the Taliban leadership and Karzai's government.

An Islamic scholar, Rahamni was appointed to the peace council when it formed in late 2010. He often spoke to western scholars and journalists about how to settle the decade-long war, and what role the Taliban might plan in a coalition government. Lately, he was particularly involved in encouraging militants to re-integrate, often lobbying on behalf of prisoners who promised they would put down their weapons if released from detention.

"The relatives of Talibs come to me and say, 'If you release my brother, I will help with the peace process,'" Rahmani said in an interview last month.

During that meeting, as if on cue, his phone rang. A man in Khost was pleading for his brother's release. Rahmani listened patiently and told the man he would try to help. The peace process depends on such good faith efforts.

But Rahmani still had moments of deep skepticism, even as he attempted to advance the reconciliation process.

"They always say they're innocent," he said after hanging up the phone. "They're almost all lying."

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