Some Taliban officials say secret Afghan peace talks held in Qatar
Two Taliban officials said on Tuesday (Wednesday NZ Time) 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.
The Afghan Taliban officials, based in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks had led to very little in terms of progress.
They added that US officials were part of the process, although they did not specify whether they were directly involved in talks.
Afghan and US 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 recognised 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.
A spokesman at the US embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the issue, and referred questions to Washington.
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 US officials.
According to the Guardian, the officials said the talks were also attended by Mullah Abdul Manan, the 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 harbouring the Taliban and not doing enough to bring the group to the negotiating table.
Pakistan denies providing the Taliban a safe haven.
The Taliban have gathered strength over the past two years, carrying out major attacks in Kabul and taking over large swathes of territory for the first time since being ousted by a US-led military intervention in 2001.
The United States has continued to provide air power and other military support to Kabul, preventing the Taliban from making more ground.