U.S. seeks to ease Afghanistan-Pakistan tensions in Brussels talks

By David Brunnstrom

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai met Pakistan's army chief and foreign minister in talks on Wednesday hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry aimed at easing tension between the neighbours before the end of NATO's Afghanistan combat mission.

Afghanistan has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan over efforts to pursue a peace process involving the Taliban, suggesting that Islamabad is intent on keep Afghanistan unstable until foreign combat forces leave at the end of 2014.

Kerry is hosting the talks in Brussels involving Karzai and Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and Foreign Minister Jalil Jilani, with the aim of calming tensions over border disputes and the stalled peace process.

Kerry told reporters at the start of the meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to NATO on the outskirts of the Belgian capital that Afghanistan was in "a critical transformational period".

"(I am) very, very pleased the president could travel, General Kayani and Secretary Jilani could take the time to be here," he said. "We are very, very hopeful for a productive series of discussions."

Karzai called it an important meeting and said he was glad Kayani and Jilani had found the time to travel to Brussels.

"Let's hope forward for the best," he told reporters.

Jilani called it a very important meeting, adding: "We are looking forward to a very productive and forward-looking discussion."

The talks come after a day after a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels at which NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Pakistan must crack down on militants who use the country as a sanctuary to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

The meeting follows weeks of tension with Pakistan over their 2,600-km (1,600-mile) border and stalled peace efforts.

Afghan officials say Pakistan has a long history of supporting Afghanistan's Taliban and other insurgent factions. Pakistan has in turn accused Afghanistan of giving safe haven to militants on the Afghan side of the border.

U.S. officials hope that Kerry, who has a good relationship with Karzai, can bring the parties back to the negotiating table and make constructive progress on an issue that has long-term security implications for Washington.

Rasmussen held talks with Karzai at NATO headquarters on Tuesday which he said focused on the legal framework for NATO's presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

NATO-led forces are expected to cede the lead role for security in Afghanistan this spring to Afghan soldiers, 12 years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government harbouring Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader.

The White House has yet to decide how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Much depends on progress in negotiations with Karzai on a Bilateral Security Agreement to define the future legal status of U.S. forces.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)