Sunday, March 14, 1999 Published at 22:20 GMT
World: South Asia
Afghan rivals reach landmark deal
Deal to end years of hostilities
A power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan has been hailed as a dramatic turning point after more than 20 years of civil war.
The deal between the ruling Taleban movement in Afghanistan and the main opposition alliance was reached after several days of peace talks in Turkmenistan.
It has been seen as one of the most significant breakthroughs in years.
It comes as UN expatriate staff return to Afghanistan after a seven-month absence.
Prisoners to be freed
"Both sides agreed to hold the next round of talks preferably inside Afghanistan at a mutually agreed venue as soon as practical," said the statement, issued by the UN special mission to Afghanistan on behalf of the two sides.
UN mediators chairing between the Islamic Taleban movement and its main rival, the Northern Alliance, are trying to end decades of war in Afghanistan.
But one of the opposition negotiators, Abdul Rahim, said the talks had taken place in "a spirit of sincerity, respect and frankness".
The main representative of the Northern Alliance, Younis Qanouni, said what was significant was that the principle of a shared Afghanistan had been agreed. The rest, he said, such as what representation each ethnic group will get, were details that would be agreed at the next stage.
The head of the Taleban delegation, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, described what had been agreed in Ashkabad as a very important step, paving the way to a ceasefire.
The acting head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Andrew Tesoriere, who was also present at the talks, said he believed it was a watershed in a conflict that has now lasted 20 years.
'First step to peace'
The deal has been welcomed by Pakistan and Iran.
Pakistan described the power-sharing agreement as a step toward lasting peace.
"It's a very good start for finding a negotiated solution to establish durable peace in Afghanistan," said the Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz.
An Iranian Government spokesman said Iran hoped the development would lead to a lasting peace.
UN officials return
The moves towards peace prompted the UN to send personnel back to Afghanistan.
Michael Sackett, director of the UN's World Food Programme in Afghanistan, is the first foreign official to return. He will be followed by several others.
The UN pulled out its expatriate staff in August following the murder of an Italian military observer.