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Police remove flagpole at center of Afghan, Taliban row

A general view of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous
A general view of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous

By Hamid Shalizi and Amena Bakr

KABUL/DOHA (Reuters) - Police have removed a flagpole from the Taliban's office in Qatar, an official said on Sunday, expunging the last visible sign of official decoration that riled the Afghan government and derailed nascent peace talks.

The Taliban was due to hold discussions with U.S. officials in Qatar last Thursday - originally raising hopes the meeting could develop into full-blown negotiations to end Afghanistan's 12-year-old war.

But the session was canceled when the Afghan government objected to the fanfare surrounding the militants' opening of an office in the Gulf state, complete with flag and official plaques.

Kabul said the regalia gave the mistaken impression the militants - who ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the U.S. offensive starting in 2001 - had achieved some measure of global recognition.

The flag and a plaque were removed late last week amid frantic diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. The flagpole was no longer visible at the building on Sunday.

"The Taliban's flag has been taken down from (their) office in Qatar, the banner and signboard have been removed, and the Qatar government's police have also removed the Taliban flagpole," said Masoom Stanekzai, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, a government body set up to pursue a negotiated ceasefire with the Taliban.

His comments, released by the Afghan government, did not go into whether that meant the U.S.-Taliban talks could now continue.

TALIBAN SAYS QATAR APPROVED

The Taliban earlier on Sunday said it had erected its flag and plaques with the agreement of the Qatari government, which is hosting the talks.

The statement, issued by the Taliban's spokesman in Doha, Dr. Muhammad Naeem, did not say whether the subsequent removal of the symbols was meant as a concession to other parties in the talks. There was no comment from the Qatar government.

The news of the removal of the flagpole came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put the onus on the Taliban to revive the talks - and warned the militants their whole office could be closed if the process collapsed.

He kept up the pressure on Sunday, telling reporters in New Delhi a final peace depended on the militants changing course and renouncing violence.

"Any political settlement must result in our judgment in the Taliban breaking ties with al Qaeda ... and accepting the Afghan constitution - including its protections for all Afghans, women and men," Kerry said.

The Afghan government repeated its complaints about the office earlier on Sunday, saying the ceremonial opening of the Taliban office had broken agreements on how the talks would proceed.

"We still need a full explanation about what happened," Said foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai.

The Taliban were pushed out of power in Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion that followed the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

The group has since waged an insurgency to overthrow the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and oust foreign troops.

It has until now refused talks with Kabul, calling Karzai and his government puppets of the West.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in New Delhi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Heavens)

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