Taliban say office in Qatar has been agreed

KABUL Tue Jan 3, 2012 1:28pm EST

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KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban said Tuesday they have reached a preliminary agreement to set up a political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar, and asked for the release of prisoners held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The Taliban office is seen by Western and Afghan officials as a crucial step to moving forward with secretive attempts to reach a negotiated end to a decade of war in Afghanistan.

"We are right now ready ... to have a political office overseas, in order to have an understanding with the international (community), and in this regard we have reached an initial understanding with Qatar and relevant sites," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement.

Afghanistan's high peace council said in late December Kabul would accept a Taliban liaison office in Qatar -- although Saudi Arabia and Turkey were Afghanistan's preferred choices -- but underlined that no foreign power could get involved in the negotiating process without its consent.

Senior U.S. officials told Reuters late last month that, after 10 months of dialogue with the Taliban, talks had reached a critical juncture and they will soon know whether a breakthrough is possible.

As part of the accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy, the United States is considering the transfer of several high-profile Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody.

Mujahid also called for the release of Taliban prisoners.

"The Islamic Emirate has also asked for the release of the Guantanamo prisoners," the statement said, using the Afghan Taliban's own name for its movement.

Afghanistan's leaders have expressed concerns that any office be used only as an address to help negotiators verify the identity of anyone claiming to represent the Taliban, rather than as a base to build political clout.

The call for an address came after a series of failed efforts by Afghans and their Western allies, some of them with interlocutors who turned out to be frauds.

These culminated in the September, 2010, assassination of Karzai's top peace envoy by a man accepted as a Taliban representative, which appeared to destroy the president's appetite for negotiations, but he has recently renewed his support.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait)

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