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US, Afghanistan to hold new talks on security deal

US President Barack Obama listens as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (L) speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2013.

The United States and Afghanistan this week launch a third round of talks to try to reach an elusive bilateral security deal as Washington steps up its troop withdrawals, a US official said Monday.

The negotiations come after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited earlier this month and held talks with US President Barack Obama, during which the two men appeared to have hammered out some of the main sticking points.

"We're obviously hoping that we can make some progress following up on the meeting of the two presidents," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists, adding they were trying to agree on "the legal basis for our security support after 2014."

"But we've also made clear that we expect that this is going to be a negotiation that's going to go on throughout the year," she said, adding that she did not believe an agreement was imminent.

After their White House talks, Obama said NATO forces would have a "very limited" role in the country after 2014, at the end of more than 13 years in the country where US-led forces toppled the Taliban leadership in 2001.

But Obama warned that Karzai, with whom he has had a somewhat testy relationship, would have to accept the security agreement still under discussion granting legal immunity to US troops who remain behind.

The lack of an immunity deal with the Iraqi leadership eventually killed an agreement on stationing US troops in the country after the US pullout in December 2011.

For his part, Karzai has stressed that from spring this year "Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security and protection to the Afghan people."

Karzai announced progress on another sticking point between the sides, saying the leaders had agreed to a complete return of detention centers and terror suspects to Afghan control, starting soon after he returns home.

But he would not be drawn on the size of the foreign troop garrison he believes is necessary to support Afghan forces, once NATO-led troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

The talks, which could start before the weekend, are being led on the US side by Ambassador James Warlick, who said at a press conference in Kabul in December that it was not strictly true to refer to an immunity deal.

"I don't think we should be talking about immunity, because it's not immunity. If someone has committed a crime, we want them held accountable for that crime. There's no question of someone getting off," he said.

"The question is one of jurisdiction and how we can see fair justice served."