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PESHAWAR: Russia’s Ambas­sador to Pakistan Alexey Y. Dedov has acknowledged contacts between his country and the Afghan Taliban, but said they are aimed at promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan.

“There have been limited contacts with the Afghan Taliban,” he told participants of a seminar on ‘Russia’s position on Afghanistan and Syria’ at the Area Study Centre here on Thursday.

Later, the Russian envoy told Dawn that he was not aware of the level of engagements with the Afghan Taliban or whether his country had sought their help in countering the threat from the militant Islamic State group. “It’s a delicate matter. I really don’t know the level of these engagements, but they have been there,” he said.

Earlier at the seminar, the Russian ambassador laughed off reports that President Vladimir Putin had met Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. “Were there reports that President Putin had met Mullah Omar too?” he asked causing laughter.

He said that his country viewed the presence of militant Islamic State (IS) group in northern Afghanistan with concern.

He said IS, which was present in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, had relocated to northern Afghanistan due to military operation. It was a matter of concern due to its proximity with Central Asian Republics and Russia, he added.

Ambassador Dedov said the situation in Afghanistan was complicated as it was more of a playground for other forces where there was no effective operation to suppress terrorists.

He said Russia had its problems with the European Union and the US, but it was coordinating with the international community on Syria and not in Afghanistan.

Describing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as a “tragic mistake”, Mr Dedov said that there was no parallel between the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and Russia’s support for the “legitimate regime” of Bashar al Assad.

Russian military support to Damascus, he said, was aimed at targeting violent jihadists, including the IS and Al Qaeda-linked Jabha Al Nusra, but Mr Dedov believed that a political settlement could be reached with what he called as “legal opposition”.

He said there could be no negotiations with IS and Jabha Al Nusra which were a brutal force.

He said Russia considered IS a threat to its national security since around three thousands of its citizens had joined it, causing problems in the Russian region of Dagestan and other places.

He said Russia had supported a political settlement and reconciliation process through the Quadrilateral Group of which it was not a member.

Mr Dedov dispelled a perception that Russia was indifferent to the situation in Afghanistan and pointed out several instances where it was providing assistance to the Afghan government, including supply of small arms and training to its police.

He admitted that Russia had made a mistake in the past by staying away from the Libya issue, which he said was perhaps much better before than it was today.

The Russian diplomat said that they did not repeat the same mistake with Syria when its legal government was faced with a challenge from IS.

Speaking about Russia-Pakistan relations, he said that it was positive and positions of both the countries coincided on 80 per cent of issues.

On President Putin’s much-speculated visit to Pakistan, he argued that there would have to be something substantive for the Russian head of state to come to Islamabad.

The Director of the Area Study Centre, Dr Sarfraz Khan, who warmly welcomed the Russian diplomat at the centre, expressed the hope that the University of Peshawar and Russian Research bodies should revive memorandums of understanding signed earlier for conducting research on emerging issues and challenges in the region.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2016