LONDON/KABUL The Afghan Taliban denied a report on Monday that some of their leading members were ready to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal involving a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
A report to be published by the Royal United Services Institute said some leading Taliban were determined to make a decisive break with al Qaeda as part of a settlement and were open to negotiation about allowing education for girls.
"The Taliban would be open to negotiating a ceasefire as part of a general settlement, and also as a bridge between confidence-building measures and the core issue of the distribution of political power in Afghanistan," the report said.
But a spokesman for the Islamist group in Afghanistan denied that any interviews had taken place. "The report is a lie and is baseless," Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters from an undisclosed location.
"We have never wanted the Americans to stay in Afghanistan and this has always been our position."
The Taliban, who have been fighting against NATO-led troops for 11 years, have always maintained that any negotiations with Afghan authorities and Washington could only be carried out once there were no foreign soldiers on Afghan soil.
RUSI said its report, entitled "Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation", was based on interviews with four unnamed Taliban figures, two of whom had been ministers in the former Taliban government and were still close to the inner circle of leadership.
The report cites a person described as a founding member of the Taliban as saying that the group might accept continuing U.S. counter-terrorist operations targeting al Qaeda in Afghanistan as long as the bases were not used to launch attacks on other countries or for interference in Afghan politics.
The report said that from the Taliban's point of view, any ceasefire would need strong Islamic justification and could not hint at any form of surrender.
U.S. officials have said they see signs that insurgent hostility to peace talks may be splintering.
With violence in Afghanistan at its worst levels since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, the West is eager to pursue such negotiations, given that it plans to withdraw most of a currently 130,000-strong NATO-led foreign force by the end of 2014.
(Reporting by Stephen Mangan in London and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Kevin Liffey)