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Afghan factions gather in France

They are to hold informal talks. Peace negotiations are not on the table.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Members of Afghanistan's warring sides gathered near Paris on Thursday to begin informal talks about the country's future as U.S. and NATO forces pull out.

It was the first time that senior figures in the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami insurgent groups were to meet with Afghan government officials and members of the former Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for years.

Organizers of the two-day gathering, which is being hosted by a French think tank, hope it will generate helpful discussions but have said there will not be negotiations for a peace deal.

International efforts to bring the Taliban and other opponents of the Afghan government to the bargaining table are intensifying amid fears that the country could slide into civil war after the departure of most foreign troops by the end of 2014. U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating conditions for the presence of American forces to train, advise and assist after combat troops withdraw.

Britain announced this week that it would withdraw nearly half its 9,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year; France pulled out the last of its combat troops Saturday.

Officials with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, which organized two previous rounds of lower-level talks with the support of the French Foreign Ministry, confirmed that the meeting had begun. But they declined to provide details, including which participants were present, until the discussions are over.

"The goal is to get them round a table and get them talking," foundation director Camille Grand told Reuters news agency. "Being away from Afghanistan should make it easier to have a discussion."

The initiative has the support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said government spokesman Siamak Herawi, who expressed hope that such meetings would "open the door for more negotiations regarding a permanent peace and stability for the country."

The Taliban has refused to negotiate with Karzai's government, which it derides as a "puppet" regime.