Hope surfaced Sunday for an end to 20 years of on-and-off bloodshed in Afghanistan, as warring factions agreed on a preliminary formula to share power and come to an eventual cease-fire.
After three days of U.N.-mediated talks, representatives of the ruling Islamic Taliban militia and the opposition coalition based in northern Afghanistan told a joint news briefing in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat they would meet again in Afghanistan to thrash out the details.
"In order to join both the groups, we have agreed to have a shared executive, a shared legislation and a shared judiciary," Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, leader of the three-man delegation from the purist Islamic Taliban, announced through an interpreter.
The rival factions on Monday said their next meeting -- to iron out the details -- would take place in April.
The preliminary agreement, reached after intense, secret talks that often lasted well into the night, also called for the exchange of 20 prisoners each.
Despite the broad nature of a statement released, both sides were optimistic.
"I am optimistic and hopeful that at the next round of talks we will be able to announce a permanent cease-fire in Afghanistan," said Mohammad Younus Qanouni, a senior opposition figure and head of their four-man group, through a translator.
He said that the atmosphere of trust and confidence established at the secluded Botanical Gardens complex where the negotiations took place had led him to believe that a joint government and an end to hostilities were within reach.
Muttawakil was also upbeat, saying a permanent cease-fire would automatically follow any establishment of a shared power structure.
"When we agree on the details and personnel of the government, then we can agree to have a cease-fire," he said.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries to recognize the Taliban government, which controls more than 90% of Afghan territory. Islamabad was quick to hail the agreement.
"It's a very good start for finding a negotiated solution to establish durable peace in Afghanistan," Pakistani Foreign Minister Satraj Aziz said in Islamabad.
The delegations, looking tired, said any shared power structure would represent different ethnic groups. The contentious issue of how the government would be divided up between them had yet to be finalized, they added.
He added that special task forces may be established to iron out technical questions that had yet to be addressed. The delegations said the next round would take place some time after the Id-e-Qorban Moslem holiday in around two weeks' time.
While representing a significant step toward ending years of bloodshed, the Ashgabat accord is only the start of what promises to be a delicate process.
As if to underline the fragility of the situation in war-torn Afghanistan, the Taliban delegation confirmed hat there had been some preparations for further military offensives, but that they were "not that considerable."
U.N. sources confirmed that there had been "low-level fighting" between the sides during the talks, a fact both delegations recognized.
But the acting head of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, Andrew Tesoriere, said that in spite of the work ahead, there was clearly cause for hope. In summing up the talks, he said:
"These talks we sincerely hope mark a watershed, because they address not only confidence-building measures, but also fundamental issues regarding the future of Afghanistan."
Afghanistan has been rocked by on-and-off fighting since a Soviet invasion in the late 1970s installed a pro-Moscow regime, sparking a guerilla insurrection.
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