KABUL, Oct 10 Afghanistan's former president Burhanuddin Rabbani was on Sunday elected chairman of a new peace council set up to broker an end to the war with the Taliban.

The High Peace Council is President Hamid Karzai's brainchild, intended to open a dialogue with militants who have been trying to bring down his government since the US-led invasion overthrew their regime in late 2001.

The 68-member council, handpicked by Mr Karzai, was set up following a nationwide conference in June and was inaugurated on October 7 amid mounting reports of secret peace talks with Taliban leaders and key militant groups.

Mr Rabbani, who was president during Afghanistan's chaotic 1992-96 civil war and has been implicated in war crimes, was elected to chair the council at its second session on Sunday in what Mr Karzai's office described as a “unanimous” vote. Delivering his acceptance speech, Mr Rabbani said he was “confident” that peace was possible, according to a statement from the palace.

“I hope we are able to take major steps in bringing peace and fulfil our duties with tireless effort and help from God,” he was quoted as saying.

According to Human Rights Watch, Mr Rabbani is among prominent Afghans implicated in war crimes during the brutal fighting that killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the early 1990s.

With the current war now into its 10th year, record numbers of western troops and Afghan civilians are dying and the Taliban are more powerful than at any time since their ouster. The government has increasingly been discredited by graft.

Western militaries have accelerated efforts to train Afghan troops, while Mr Karzai has promised that Afghanistan will take responsibility for security by 2014 and has put negotiations with the Taliban at the top of his agenda.

The Taliban have said publicly they will not enter dialogue with the government until all 152,000 foreign troops based in the country leave.

Mr Rabbani led one of seven resistance factions against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later became a leader of the Northern Alliance, an enemy of the Taliban that allied itself to US-led forces in late 2001.

Although a US-led troop surge is said to be making tentative progress against Taliban strongholds in the south, there is increased acceptance that a negotiated settlement will be a vital component in ending the conflict.

US General David Petraeus, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, has confirmed Taliban “overtures” to the Afghan government and foreign forces about quitting the fight.

The Washington Post reported last week that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has backed secret high-level talks with the Afghan government.

A British newspaper said the Afghan and US governments had recently made contact with the Haqqani network, one of the most feared groups in Afghanistan and the target of a major increase in US drone strikes. —AFP

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