UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Friday split the U.N. sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two, which envoys said could help induce the Taliban into talks on a peace deal in Afghanistan.
The move comes as Washington prepares to start pulling out its 97,000 troops in Afghanistan next month as part of a process to hand over all combat operations against Taliban insurgents to Afghan security forces by 2014.
Details of the divided sanctions lists were contained in two U.S.-drafted resolutions, which the 15-nation Security Council adopted unanimously. One resolution established a Taliban blacklist and the other an al Qaeda blacklist of individuals facing travel bans and asset freezes.
"The United States believes that the new sanctions regime for Afghanistan will serve as an important tool to promote reconciliation, while isolating extremists," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a statement.
She said the move sent "a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution."
The Afghan Taliban, which ruled the country before being driven from power by U.S.-backed forces in 2001, was playing host to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when he launched the September 11 attacks on the United States. Separating the two movements has long been a Western goal.
The al Qaeda resolution strengthens the powers of the ombudsman, who handles complaints by individuals who say they should not be on the list. The al Qaeda sanctions list has been criticized by human rights advocates, who say it has proven to be virtually impossible to get taken off it.
German Ambassador Peter Wittig told reporters the ombudsman would now have the power to recommend removal of people from the U.N. blacklist and council members would have to agree unanimously to override the recommendation.
Wittig, who has chaired the Taliban/al Qaeda sanctions committee, described the changes as "a major step forward to clear and fair procedures."
On the Taliban blacklist, Wittig said the Afghan government would have to be consulted on all matters regarding the listings, which will give them "additional ownership" of the process.
Afghanistan's U.N. ambassador, Zahir Tanin, told Reuters in a telephone interview earlier this week that the move "gives us more flexibility. It will help to create a regime of engagement for people to join the peace process."
Tanin said that although it would not mean the end of sanctions against the Taliban, no longer lumping them with al Qaeda would be a "psychological factor" that could weigh with those Taliban considering giving up armed struggle.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this month there could be political talks with the Taliban by the end of this year, if the NATO alliance kept making military advances on the ground, putting pressure on the insurgents.
Currently, there are 138 Taliban and 253 al Qaeda names on what will now be two separate U.N. blacklists.
Afghanistan has made several bids in the past to have names of Taliban figures it says have abandoned militancy and settled into civilian life removed from the list.
But some members of the Security Council have been cautious, above all Russia, which had bitter experience of fighting Afghan rebels in the 1980s.
Tanin said Kabul's latest request was for about 20 people to be delisted.
Editing by Peter Cooney