Reuters International

A video grab shows Afghanistan's former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar February 22, 2007. REUTERS/REUTERS TV

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By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan signed a draft agreement with the Hezb-e-Islami militant group on Wednesday that the government hopes could lead to a full peace accord with one of the most notorious warlords in the insurgency.

Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a veteran of decades of Afghan war and rights groups have accused his group of widespread abuses, particularly during the civil war of the early 1990s, when he briefly served as prime minister.

The United States has also linked the group to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and put Hekmatyar on its designated terrorist list.

Hezb-e-Islami has played only a minor role in the Taliban-led insurgency in recent years and the deal is unlikely to have any immediate practical impact on security.

But with little sign that the Taliban are ready to join peace talks, the deal offers President Ashraf Ghani's government a concrete sign that it is making headway in drawing insurgent groups away from the battlefield and into the political process.

Mohammad Khan, deputy to government Chief Executive Abdullah, said the draft accord was a positive step but more work would be needed for a final deal.

"We are optimistic about this agreement and we strongly support it," he told reporters before the accord was signed by a delegation from Hekmatyar's party and officials from Afghanistan's High Peace Council. But he added: "This doesn't mean it's finalised."

A tweet from Ghani's deputy spokesman said the accord was at the stage of endorsement and verification but had not been signed by the president.

The announcement came as officials from Pakistan, the United States, China and Afghanistan held another round of meetings in Pakistan, aimed at laying the ground for peace talks with the Taliban, who have refused to join the talks.

Human rights groups have criticised the move towards a deal with Hekmatyar's group but the pressure on the government for some sign of progress in bringing peace appears to have outweighed the concerns.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that while Hekmatyar was still designated, the United States welcomed the steps to engage in talks with Hezb-e-Islami.

"Obviously we hope that it can lead to a better, less violent outcome for the Afghan people," he told a regular news briefing.

The U.S. State Department included Hekmatyar on its terrorist list in 2003, accusing him of participating in and supporting attacks by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

His group was most recently blamed for a 2013 attack in Kabul in which two U.S. soldiers and four U.S. civilian contractors as well as eight Afghans were killed.

Under the draft, members of Hezb-e-Islami would be offered an amnesty, similar to that offered in 2007 to warlords accused of war crimes, as well as a release of prisoners held by Afghan authorities.

The government would also work to have the group removed from a U.N. blacklist.

The group, which for years had close ties with Pakistan, would not join the government but would be recognised as a political party and be involved in major political decisions.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sandra Maler)

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