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Afghan conference calls for talks with militants

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- An Afghan national peace conference today urged the government to take formal steps toward negotiating with insurgents, boosting President Hamid Karzai's plans to open talks with the Taliban.

The conference said militants who joined the peace process should be removed from a U.N. blacklist that currently imposes travel and financial restrictions on some 137 people associated with the Taliban. It also said that insurgents who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign terrorist groups -- a clear reference to al-Qaida.

The recommendations followed three days of deliberations among some 1,500 delegates aimed at ending nine years of fighting that have followed the hardline Taliban regime's ouster by U.S.-backed forces in 2001.

Although the resolution was phrased in general terms -- it did not specifically refer to the Taliban -- it should allow the president to claim a mandate to pursue his peace plans.

That could boost Karzai's standing, battered by corruption in his government, his fraud-tainted re-election last year, and escalating militant violence despite a U.S. troop surge.

But any reconciliation talks were likely to remain a long way off.

No active members of the Taliban and other militant groups took part in the conference in Kabul. Taliban suicide attackers attempted to disrupt the opening of conference, or jirga, on Wednesday.

In closing remarks to delegates, Karzai called on insurgents to take advantage of the opportunity to forge a lasting peace.

"I want to call on Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami to use this opportunity to join with us and join in the reconstruction of this country," Karzai said. Hizb-i-Islami is a smaller insurgent group allied to the Taliban.

He said the jirga had provided a set of instructions for the government.

"It has shown us a path. We will follow that path step by step and, God willing, we will reach the end," he said.

Taliban leaders, however, insist there will be no talks with the government until U.S.-led foreign troops have left the country -- a condition Karzai cannot accept. He wants to offer rank-and-file insurgents amnesties and other incentives to lay down their arms, and to hold talks with top Taliban leaders if they renounce al-Qaida and vow to uphold the constitution.