Thu, April 02, 2009
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World leaders focus on Afghanistan

2009-04-02 09:14:18 GMT2009-04-02 17:14:18 (Beijing Time)  Reuters

Hillary Clinton may not be shaking the hand of an 'unclenched fist' - but the fact she was in the same room as Iran's deputy foreign minister signals the new mood set by President Obama.

Iran and the United States were among nearly 80 countries in the Netherlands meeting to discuss Afghanistan's future.

The one-day event in the Hague is aimed at reigniting efforts to stabilise Afghanistan after the U.S. announced a major policy review of its strategy to tackle a growing insurgency that now threatens to engulf Pakistan.

The U.S. Secretary of State told the meeting the United States was ready to offer an "honourable form of reconciliation" to Taliban fighters who renounced violence.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON SAYING:

"We must also support the efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from those who joined their ranks not out of conviction but out of desperation."

Clinton also called on Afghanistan's neighbours to play a constructive role in bringing peace to the country - a message clearly aimed at Iran.

Responding to the U.S. overture, Iran said it's ready to help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and fighting drugs trafficking.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) IRANIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER MOHAMMAD MEHDI AKHOUNDZADEH SAYING:

"The terrorist groups fund their activities relying upon the proceeds gained from drug trafficking."

But Iran also criticised U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan - reaffirming Tehran's long-standing opposition to the presence of foreign forces there.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is insists his government should lead conciliation efforts - but he welcomed Obama's new emphasis on a regional approach.

In another sign of a thaw in relations - the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke held an unscripted meeting with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mohammed Mehdi Akhoundzadeh on the sidelines of the summit.

The encounter, reflecting a strong desire by the Obama White House to engage Iran after decades of mistrust and hostility between the two countries.

Helen Long, Reuters

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