Afghan Taliban reject Karzai's safety vow
KABUL (Reuters) - A Taliban militant leader rejected on Monday an offer from Afghan President Hamid Karzai of safe passage for insurgent leaders who wanted to talk peace.
Karzai, back from a trip to Britain and the United States, said on Sunday he would guarantee the safety of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if he was prepared to negotiate.
With the Taliban insurgency intensifying seven years after the hardline Islamists were forced from power, the possibility of talks with more moderate Taliban leaders is increasingly being considered, both in Afghanistan and among its allies.
The Afghan government says it is willing to talk to anyone who recognises the constitution.
The Taliban have ruled out any talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. Karzai said on Sunday that condition was unacceptable.
Mullah Brother, deputy leader of the Taliban, rejected Karzai's offer of safe passage and again said foreign troops had to leave before negotiations could start.
"As long as foreign occupiers remain in Afghanistan, we aren't ready for talks because they hold the power and talks won't bear fruit ... The problems in Afghanistan are because of them," Brother said.
"We are safe in Afghanistan and we have no need for Hamid Karzai's offer of safety," he told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location, adding that the Taliban jihad, or holy war, would go on.
Violence in Afghanistan has surged over the past two years, raising doubts about prospects for the country and Western efforts to establish peace and build a stable state.
Some 70,000 foreign troops, around half of them American, are struggling against the Taliban, whose influence, and attacks, are spreading in the south, east and west.
The prospect of a bloody, drawn-out stalemate has focused attention on the possibility of talks. Negotiations with insurgents in Iraq are seen as having contributed to an improvement in security there.
"NO TALKS WITH AL QAEDA"
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month the United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban if the Afghan government pursued talks but would not consider negotiations with al Qaeda.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has also suggested he was open to talks with more moderate Taliban leaders to explore whether the Iraq strategy would work in Afghanistan.
Analysts say the government and its Western allies hope to draw moderate Taliban, or perhaps opportunistic commanders, into talks to isolate hardliners close to al Qaeda.
A tentative first step towards talks was taken in September when a group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials met in Saudi Arabia for discussions on how to end the conflict.
But the Taliban derided those talks and repeated their demand that foreign troops get out. However, Afghan government officials have said they expected another round.
Most Afghans, fed up with the interminable violence, think there will have to be talks at some stage.
Mullah Omar carries a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head and is generally believed to be a stalwart ally of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Analysts say Karzai offered Mullah Omar safe passage not so much in the expectation he would take up the offer, but to emphasise his message to other Taliban.
Karzai also has an eye on a presidential election next year that he hopes to win, and wants to be seen by a war-weary electorate as making every effort to bring peace, analysts say.
(Additional reporting by Saeed Ali Achakzai)
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