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First talks held in Europe by Taliban since the Afghan takeover

OSLO, Norway (AP), -- Official talks between the Taliban and western diplomats began in Europe for the first time since they took control of Afghanistan in August.

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First talks held in Europe by Taliban since the Afghan takeover

Closed-door meetings took place in a hotel high above Oslo, nestled in the snowy mountains. As Afghanistan is in a dire humanitarian situation, Taliban representatives will press for the release of nearly $10 billion that has been frozen by the United States.

Shafiullah Aza, a Taliban delegate, said on Sunday night that they were asking them to freeze Afghan assets and not penalize ordinary Afghans due to the political discourse. "Because of starvation and the deadly winter, it's now that the international community needs to support Afghans and not punish them for their political differences."

Western diplomats met with Afghan women's rights activists, human rights defenders and human rights advocates to discuss their demands and assess the current situation in Afghanistan. Representatives from the EU, the U.S. and France attended the meeting, as well as the hosts Norway.

Heda Khamoush (a women's rights activist who lives in Kabul) stood silently as the attendees gathered and held up photos of Parwana Ibrahimkhel and Tamana Zaryabi Paryani, two women taken by the Taliban following an anti-Taliban demonstration against the mandatory Islamic headscarf for women. They have not been seen since.

Azam rejected the Taliban's claim that they had taken them hostage and said he wasn't aware of it. He suggested that activists might be making use of this incident to seek asylum.

After the meeting, Mahbouba Seraj, a women's rights activist, resentfully rejected the idea and warned that "if [they] continue to do this -- to tell us something and then do something else -- that is when trust will be broken, completely."

On Sunday, the three-day talks began with direct meetings between representatives of civil society and Taliban officials.

Zabihullah Mojahid, Afghanistan's deputy culture minister, tweeted a joint statement overnight. It stated that participants of the meeting "recognized that understanding and cooperative are the only solutions for all the problems in Afghanistan" and stressed that "all Afghans must work together to improve the political, economic, and security outcomes in Afghanistan."

Seraj acknowledged the positive changes made. "Yes, they were listening. She said that Monday morning. We gave them a piece of paper. They asked us what we wanted. They agreed to it. They were extremely cordial about it."

These talks are crucial for Afghanistan because freezing temperatures are adding to the misery caused by the downward spiral that followed the fall of the U.S-backed government and the Taliban takingover.

International agencies and aid groups estimate that 23 million people are in severe hunger, and almost 9 million are at risk of starvation. People are forced to sell their possessions in order to purchase food, to heat their homes and to sell their children. The United Nations provided some liquidity, allowing the Taliban government to import electricity and pay for its own supplies.

Faced by the Taliban's request to fund, the West is likely to place the rights of Afghan women and girls high on its agenda. This will be in addition to the West's repeated demand that the Taliban administration share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic or religious groups.

The Taliban came to power in mid August and have since imposed many restrictions on women. Women are prohibited from working in the education and health fields. They have also been denied access to sixth grade education. However, the Taliban have not yet imposed the burqa that was mandatory during their previous rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Taliban are increasingly targeting Afghanistan's rights groups and journalists. They also detain and beat television crews covering protests.

According to a statement by the U.S. State Department, a U.S. delegation will discuss "the formation a representative political structure; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security concerns; and rights for women and girls," according to a statement.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Scandinavian nation is not unfamiliar with diplomacy. It has participated in peace efforts in many countries including Afghanistan, Mozambique and Venezuela, Colombia, Colombia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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