By Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL, May 2 (Reuters) - Thousands of Afghans taking part in a rare grand assembly to discuss a possible peace deal with Taliban militants are demanding a ceasefire on both sides as a first step, officials said on Thursday.
The "Loya Jirga" is meeting under a huge, permanent, white tent in Kabul with the aim of influencing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban to end a war that has raged since the militants' ouster in 2001.
The Taliban, seeking to restore strict Islamic rule, refuse to talk to the government of President Ashraf Ghani which they dismiss as a U.S. puppet. They rejected an invitation to the Loya Jirga.
"We are here to urge both sides to announce a ceasefire. The war will end only when both sides stop fighting before they sign a permanent peace agreement," said Abdul Hannan, a member of one the committees who travelled from the south to attend the assembly.
The U.S. talks with the Taliban in Qatar are part of President Donald Trump's efforts to end America's longest war, which began when U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Since October, U.S. and Taliban officials have held several rounds of talks aimed at ensuring a safe exit for U.S. forces in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used by militants to threaten the rest of the world.
The Loya Jirga, attended by 3,200 religious leaders, politicians and representatives from across the country, is aimed at building consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions and is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstance.
While the final recommendations of the assembly may not be announced until Friday, a majority of the members backed talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
Last month, the Taliban announced the start of a spring offensive. Even before the announcement, combat had intensified across Afghanistan in recent weeks and hundreds of Afghan troops and civilians have been killed.
Dozens of women who were given an opportunity to address the assembly said Afghanistan must not backtrack from the gains that women have made since Taliban rule ended.
Women fear a return to pre-2001 days when they were barred from education and forced to cover their faces in the all-enveloping burqa.
"Withdrawal of foreign forces should not mean that all advances made in women's' rights are forgotten and we are forced to suffer again," said Semin Noori, head of one of the assembly committees.
Opposition political leaders and government critics, including former President Hamid Karzai, are boycotting the assembly, accusing Ghani of using it as a platform to boost his status as a leader in an election year.
Several delegates also rejected Taliban and opposition calls for an interim government when Ghani's term expires this month. (Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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