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Afghan delegation to meet with Taliban in Qatar - officials

KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan delegation is heading to Qatar for “open discussions” with representatives of Taliban insurgents over the next few days aimed at ending Afghanistan’s long war, an official said on Friday.

The meeting - part of a regional conference - could be a step towards opening formal talks to ending the war, but it was not clear on Friday whether it had been approved by the Taliban’s supreme leader, who has not been seen in public for years.

Pakistan’s army chief told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in February that senior Taliban figures were open to talks with Kabul, but so far there has been little sign of progress.

A 20-member Afghan delegation will attend talks in Qatar on Sunday and Monday, Attaullah Ludin, deputy chief of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, told Reuters.

“The open discussions are based on peace in Afghanistan. There will be representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Taliban and some other organisations,” Ludin said.

Previous efforts to open channels of communication, including the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in 2013 as part of a U.S.-sponsored push to promote talks, have led nowhere.

The Taliban have, if anything, recently shown more desire to fight than to talk. Last week, Taliban fighters entered the outer districts of a northerly provincial capital, Kunduz.

The Taliban’s official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed that an eight-strong Taliban delegation would attend a conference in Qatar this weekend organised by the Pugwash Council, a global organisation that promotes dialogue to resolve conflicts and won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

But he said its attendance “does not mean at all peace talks or negotiations”.

However, a senior Taliban official in Qatar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there would be face-to-face meetings between Afghan and Taliban officials.

He said he had attended high-level meetings discussing which Afghan officials, as well as some from Pakistan and other countries, the Taliban delegation would and would not directly meet with. “It’s top secret so far,” he said.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

Both Mujahid and the Qatar-based Taliban official said the meeting had been organised by the Pugwash Council.

Messages left at Pugwash offices in Europe and the United States were not returned. The group’s website says that in 2013 it held a meeting on Afghan reconciliation in Dubai described as a “complementary initiative aimed at informally discussing ideas and proposals”.

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Kevin Liffey