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World News

U.N. set for more discreet talks with Taliban: envoys

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a new report on Afghanistan that the United Nations is ready to continue informal talks with the Taliban but the contact must be discreet, diplomats said.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council will discuss Ban’s report on Thursday and vote next week on his recommendation to renew the mandate of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for another 12 months.

Ban said UNAMA’s mandate “allows it to provide good offices to support the implementation of Afghan-led reconciliation programs” with which President Hamid Karzai is trying to reach out and offer an amnesty to Taliban insurgents.

“It (UNAMA) can also lend its good offices ... to these efforts based on the consent of the parties concerned, although the nature of the task could initially require discretion and flexibility,” said the report, obtained by Reuters on Monday.

Several U.N. diplomats said this language amounted to a request for a green light from the council for UNAMA officials to continue informal talks with the Taliban, as long as the contact supported the efforts of the Afghan government.

They said the requirement for “discretion and flexibility” meant that information might be kept confidential and left out of formal U.N. briefings.

“It’s a request for an explicit implicit wink from the council” to allow secret political talks with the Taliban to continue, one U.N. diplomat said.

The issue of speaking with the Taliban is a sensitive one, since the group has been subject to U.N. sanctions since 1999.

But diplomats said the former U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, had been repeatedly in contact with the Taliban, despite his denial of reports that he met with Taliban representatives in the Middle East earlier this year.

One U.N. diplomat dismissed Eide’s denials, saying he “did talk with the Taliban, and on more than one occasion.”

U.S. CAUTIOUS ON TALIBAN TALKS

Another Western diplomat said key members of the NATO coalition that has troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan were aware of Eide’s contacts and were not opposed to them.

“We just want to make sure that they’re coordinated with the Afghan government and that no one’s running their own negotiations,” the Western diplomat said, adding the Security Council was likely to give Ban the green light he was seeking.

The new U.N. envoy, Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura, who arrived in Kabul to take up his post over the weekend, is expected to continue Eide’s contact with the Taliban.

There is some support among NATO member states for Karzai’s reconciliation programs. Last week, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged the Afghans to push hard for a peace settlement with the Taliban.

But the United States is cautious about reconciliation, not wanting to move ahead full steam until it feels there is a strong perception it is beating the Taliban militarily as a result of President Barack Obama’s new Afghan policy, which included a “surge” of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops.

Ban’s report also confirmed the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated to the point where 2009 was the most volatile year since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001.

It said the number of civilians killed last year rose 14 percent over 2008 to 2,412, most of them by “anti-government elements” such as the Taliban.

It also warned against a “militarization of the overall effort in Afghanistan” and called for many non-military tasks to be handed over to Afghan civilian institutions.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by John O’Callaghan

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