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'Taliban is ready to talk peace' with Afghan state: Afghan official

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban is willing to consider peace talks with the Afghan state following secret discussions, a senior Afghan official said on Tuesday, in what may be the first significant step towards an end to the long-running war.

Afghan Taliban look on after handing over their weapons as they join the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Herat province, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Mohmmad Shoib

“Peace talks will certainly take place between the Taliban and the High Peace Council,” said the senior official, referring to the body created by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to broker peace with the insurgency.

The Taliban has until now said it would not countenance peace talks with the Karzai government, it calls a “stooge” of the United States and other Western nations.

The peace talks, if they go ahead, could also lead to a reduction in fighting across Afghanistan, the official said.

“We hope that the attacks carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan will reduce while we talk peace; there is no point in talking if the bombs continue to kill civilians,” he said.

The announcement came on the same day that the Taliban opened their long-delayed office in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Taliban official Mohammed Naeem announced the opening of the office in a press conference in Doha.

In a move that may anger the Afghan government, the white Taliban flag was at his side, and a large sign behind him proclaimed the office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name the Taliban used during their brief national rule in the 1990s.

Both events may have been timed to coincide with a ceremony on Tuesday to mark the beginning of the final phase of security transition from the U.S.-led coalition to the Afghan state.

Fear is mounting that Afghanistan could fall into chaos following the pullout of most NATO combat troops by the end of 2014. A presidential election is also due that year.

NATO and its partners are training Afghanistan’s 352,000-strong security forces, though questions remain over how ready they are to tackle the insurgency on their own.

In late April, the Taliban vowed to start a new campaign of suicide attacks on foreign military bases and diplomatic areas as well as the “Karzai regime” as part of their so-called spring offensive.

Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Ralph Boulton