KABUL: The Taliban announced on Tuesday that they had come to an "initial agreement" to open their first political overseas office, possibly in Qatar, in the first public gesture towards peace talks with the US.
It is the first time the insurgent group has publicly raised the prospect of a negotiated peace after more than ten years of fighting the Kabul government, after previously stating they would not talk until all foreign troops had left Afghan soil.
In a statement on their purported website "Voice of Jihad", the Islamists said they had held "preliminary talks with relevant sides including Qatar" to open an office outside Afghanistan, without confirming where it would be.
One of their demands would be for a prisoner exchange to include the release of Taliban inmates from the US-run detention facility Guantanamo Bay, they said.
"We’re now prepared, while having a strong presence inside (Afghanistan), to have a political office outside (Afghanistan) for negotiations," the statement said.
"And as part of this we have reached initial agreement with relevant sides including Qatar."
There are still about 130,000 US-led forces fighting the Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan, with coalition combat troops set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.
The Taliban, now into an 11th year of fighting President Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed government, called again for international troops to leave.
"The occupation of the country must be ended and Afghans must be allowed to create an Islamic government of their choice that be no harm to any one."
The statement rejected some media reports that negotiations with the US had begun, but according to a source in Pakistan early discussions had been held last autumn in Doha, Qatar, between US diplomats and a small Taliban delegation led by Tayyeb Agha, the former secretary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The source said that Agha was the only Taliban official in direct contact with Mullah Omar, saying the Taliban’s founder was based in Pakistan.
The comments come two days after Karzai publicly welcomed remarks by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Taliban "per se is not our enemy", saying they would help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Biden’s comments to Newsweek magazine triggered controversy in the United States but reflected an increasing focus on finding a political settlement as Western nations look to bring their troops home.
Karzai has agreed that if the United States wants to set up a Taliban address in Qatar to enable peace talks he will not stand in the way, as long as Afghanistan is involved in the process.
The September assassination of Karzai’s peace envoy, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, appeared to have derailed any prospects of progress in talks.
In the interview with Newsweek Biden emphasized the need for the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda.
As it pushes for a political settlement, the Afghan government has changed its tone towards the insurgents, referring to "terrorist" rather than "Taliban" attacks.
But many Afghans fear if the Taliban is allowed into mainstream politics, their influence will see the undermining of human rights and freedoms.