A Taliban delegation on Sunday began talks in Oslo with Afghan civil society members focused on human rights, Norway's Foreign Ministry said, before meetings with Western diplomats next week.
The Taliban delegation arrived in Oslo late on Saturday.
An all-male 15-member delegation arrived on a plane organized by the Norwegian government, according to a Taliban spokesman.
Those attending Sunday's talks included women's rights activists and human rights advocates from Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora.
What was the outcome of the talks?
At the end of the first day of talks, a Taliban official told the AP news agency that the meetings were a "step to legitimize the Afghan government."
"This type of invitation and communication will help the European community, the US or many other countries to erase the wrong picture of the Afghan government," the official added. But most countries have repeatedly said dialogue didn't mean recognition of the group as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
Activist Jamila Afghani told AFP news agency that there were some positive initial indications. "It was a positive icebreaking meeting," Afghani said while adding: "Taliban displayed goodwill. They listened patiently and responded to most of our concerns. Let's see what their actions will be, based on their words."
Meanwhile, a group of Afghans gathered for a protest outside Norway's Foreign Ministry headquarters, shouting "No to the Taliban" and calling the Islamic hardliners "terrorists." Other protests were reportedly held in front of Norwegian embassies in London and in Toronto.
Why are the talks important?
The meetings beginning Monday will mark the Taliban's first with Western diplomats in Europe since the group seized power in Afghanistan in August last year.
The vastly disparate parties are due to discuss human rights and humanitarian aid for Afghans.
The hard-line militants will meet Norwegian and European Union officials, as well as representatives from the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the US.
What is on the agenda?
A US State Department official said that the agenda of the talks would be about the "formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women."
Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for Taliban, told the AFP news agency that the Taliban had "taken steps for meeting the demands of the Western world and we hope to strengthen our relations through diplomacy with all the countries, including European countries and the West in general."
"They want to "transform the atmosphere of war … into a peaceful situation," Mujahid added.
Afghan opposition slams Western officials
Ali Maisam Nazary, the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front (NRF), an opposition group in Afghanistan, criticized Norway for hosting the talks.
"We all must raise our voices and prevent any country from normalizing a terrorist group as the representative of Afghanistan," Nazary, who is based in Paris, wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said in the official statement on Afghan talks that the meetings "do not represent a legitimization of recognition of the Taliban."
"But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster," Huitfeldt added.
Taliban seek allies and funding
No country has recognized the Taliban yet, though some have taken measures to normalize relations with the group.
The Taliban traveled to Russia, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan, China and Turkmenistan to try to establish formal relations.
Western countries have refused to recognize the Taliban, citing fears that they would repeat the brutalities that they had committed when in power in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001.
International aid, however, is a top concern for ordinary Afghans who are bearing the brunt of the situation.
On Friday, the European Union re-established a "minimal presence" in Afghanistan to facilitate humanitarian aid operations, Peter Stano, the spokesperson for the European Commission for Foreign Affairs, said.
Stano stressed that the operation "must not in any way be seen as recognition" of the Taliban regime.
What is the situation in Afghanistan?
The Taliban are faced with economic hardship since countries around the world stopped foreign aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget.
The US also froze the Taliban's assets, worth $9.5 billion (€8.4 billion), after the group took control of the country.
Millions of Afghans have been out of work since the Taliban takeover. A harsh winter, severe drought and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated conditions for Afghans, prompting the United Nations to make its largest-ever appeal, $4.4 billion (€3.9 billion), for humanitarian aid for a single country in early January.
Hunger threatens nearly 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations.
Notorious for human rights abuses, the Taliban have also imposed many constraints on women, from restricting their travel without being accompanied by a male relative to effectively prohibiting girls from higher education.
rm/fb (AFP, AP)