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OSLO: The first Taliban delegation to visit Europe since the hardline Islamists returned to power in Afghanistan began talks focused on human rights with Afghan civil society members in Oslo on Sunday, ahead of highly anticipated meetings with Western officials.

Headed by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, the delegation dedicated the first day of their three-day visit to talks with women activists and journalists, among others.

The discussions, which are being facilitated by Norway and are to focus on human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, are taking place behind closed doors at the Soria Moria Hotel, on a snowy hilltop outside Oslo. Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since last August when the Taliban stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled.

International aid came to a sudden halt after their takeover, worsening the plight of millions of people who were already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

The hardline Islamists were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001 but took over again following a hasty withdrawal by international forces.

No country has yet recognised the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”.

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said Friday.

Several dozen demonstrators protested outside Norway’s foreign ministry on Sunday, shouting “No to Taliban”, “Taliban terrorists” and “Afghan lives matter”, an AFP journalist at the scene reported.

Taliban to meet Western officials in Norway for aid talks

On Monday, the Taliban will meet with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union, while Tuesday will be dedicated to bilateral talks with Norwegian officials.

In an interview with AFP on Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the hardline Islamists hoped the talks would help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation”.

Joining the delegation from Kabul is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the most feared and violent faction of the Taliban movement — the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan.

A senior official with no formal government title, he was jailed for several years at the United States’ Bagram detention centre outside of the capital Kabul before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019.

International aid financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget until it was halted in August, and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have gone unpaid for months.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Friday.

The international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Islamists claim to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and most secondary schools for girls remain closed.

A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.

She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalise the Taliban and... strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”

“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked.

Two women activists disappeared this week after being seized from their homes in Kabul after taking part in a demonstration.

Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, criticised Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.

Hosting the Taliban’s foreign minister “casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.

Norway has played a mediating role in many conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia.

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