Some Taliban officials say secret Afghan peace talks held in Qatar

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Two Taliban officials said on Tuesday that the militant movement held informal, secret peace talks with the Afghan government earlier this month in Qatar, but a Taliban spokesman denied they took place.

Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in an undated photo. Social Media/File Photo

The Afghan Taliban officials, based in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks had yielded little.

They added that U.S. officials were part of the process, although they did not specify whether they were directly involved in the talks.

Afghan and U.S. officials demanded that the Taliban declared a ceasefire, laid down arms and started formal peace talks, said the UAE-based official.

In response, he said, Taliban officials demanded that the group be officially recognized as a political movement, its leaders’ names be removed from a UN blacklist and all prisoners be released.

“Like our previous meetings, it was a waste of time and resources, as we could not achieve anything from the meeting,” said the UAE-based official.

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the State Department, said the United States supported a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict, but declined to comment on the reported talks.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed reports of the meeting, saying they were propaganda aimed at creating divisions within the insurgency.

He was responding to an article earlier on Tuesday by Britain’s Guardian newspaper that cited anonymous sources saying the Taliban had held two rounds of discussions, some of which included U.S. officials.

According to the Guardian, the officials said the talks were attended by Mullah Abdul Manan, brother of the Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, who died in 2013.

A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would not confirm or deny any recent talks in Qatar when asked by Reuters, but added: “We will use all possible ways in order to reach a lasting peace in the country”.

Previous Pakistan-brokered peace talks have yielded little progress, and ground to a halt when news of the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed in 2015.

Efforts to revive the talks collapsed when the United States killed former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan in May.

Under new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, fighting has raged across Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking the northern city of Kunduz and threatening Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gah in the south.

No Pakistani official took part in the latest talks, according to the Guardian.

Relations between the governments in Kabul and Islamabad have deteriorated over the past year, with Afghanistan and the United States accusing Pakistan of harboring the Taliban and not doing enough to bring the group to the negotiating table.

Pakistan denies providing the Taliban a safe haven.

Additional Reporting by Jibran Ahmed in PESHAWAR; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and Asad Hashim; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White