KABUL (Reuters) - Gunmen shot dead a top Afghan peace negotiator in the capital Kabul on Sunday, dealing another blow to the country's attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.
Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, 68, was one of the most senior and important members on Afghanistan's High Peace Council, set up by President Hamid Karzai two years ago to liaise with the insurgents.
"He (Rahmani) was stuck in heavy traffic when another car beside him opened fire," said General Mohammad Zahir, head of Kabul police's investigation unit. No suspect was arrested.
The Taliban denied involvement in the killing of Rahmani, a defector from the Taliban who retained strong ties to the movement.
"Others are involved in this," the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, adding: "We don't believe it's a big blow to peace efforts because the peace council has achieved nothing."
Rahmani, a frail man from Paktika province with a wispy black beard and thick glasses, was on his way to meet lawmakers and other officials in a government-run media centre in the heavily barricaded diplomatic centre of Kabul when he was shot.
"Rahmani's killing is a huge loss for Afghanistan but will not deter us from our efforts for lasting peace," Karzai's chief spokesman Aimal Faizi told a press briefing.
NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy in Kabul also condemned Rahmani's assassination.
The 70-member High Peace Council appears to have made little progress in negotiating with the Taliban to end a war now in its 11th year.
Its head, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by a suicide bomber last September. He was recently replaced by his son Salahuddin, although analysts say the council is ineffective or even dysfunctional.
Last month a suicide bomber killed the head of a regional peace council in the eastern province of Kunar.
Rahmani told Reuters at the start of the year that he was optimistic that secret peace talks with the Taliban had a good chance of success, and that the Taliban were ready to moderate their fundamentalist positions.
U.S. diplomats have separately engaged the Taliban in secret discussions abroad leading to an agreement on the establishment of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar, though the Taliban later suspended the talks, accusing Washington of ignoring their demands.
Fear is mounting among locals and foreign governments that Afghanistan could be engulfed in turmoil after the pullout of NATO combat troops by the end of 2014 and national elections the same year.
The government officially announced the third of five phases of security transfer from NATO to Afghan forces on Sunday, comprising 230 districts and the centres of all provincial capitals, including the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar city.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Kevin Liffey