(Reuters) - Representatives of the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai's government have started secret talks to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, citing Afghan and Arab sources.
The sources, who were not named by the Post, were quoted as saying they believe the Taliban representatives are authorised to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban organisation based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mohammad Omar.
The sources quoted by the Post stressed that the current discussions are in the preliminary stages. The newspaper said the talks followed inconclusive meetings hosted by Saudi Arabia that wrapped up more than a year ago.
Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer, speaking in Kabul, declined to confirm or deny the report of new meetings.
"There were contacts in the past and may now be direct or indirect ones. There have been regular contacts over the past two years," he said, when asked about the Washington Post story.
"There haven't been any substantive talks, there have been contacts only."
Afghanistan has been beset by war for decades. U.S. forces led an invasion in 2001 to topple the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan who harboured the al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States that year.
Fighting has dragged on for nine years.
"They are very, very serious about finding a way out," one source close to the talks said of the Taliban, according to the Post.
The newspaper noted that Omar's representatives have insisted publicly that negotiations were impossible until foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan. But the Post said the Quetta Shura has begun to discuss a broad agreement that would include participation of some Taliban figures in Afghanistan's government and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops on an agreed timeline.
The Quetta Shura is the remains of the Afghan Taliban government overthrown and driven into Pakistan by the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The Post quoted several sources as saying that the talks with the Quetta Shura did not involve the Haqqani network, the target of U.S. drone attacks in northwestern Pakistan. The Haqqani network is based mainly in Pakistan's North Waziristan and adjoining provinces in Afghanistan.
U.S. CHANGE OF HEART
Afghan, Arab and European sources cited by the Post said they saw a change of heart by the United States towards backing such negotiations, saying the Obama administration only recently appeared open to talks rather than resisting them.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said a broad Taliban shift towards reconciliation with the Afghan government was unlikely for now.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai launched an effort this year to reach out to elements of the Taliban that might be willing to reconcile with the government, renounce violence and accept the new constitution.
"I think it is too soon to suggest that there is ... a wider movement afoot, that the tide is turning in terms of re-integration and reconciliation," Morrell told reporters at a briefing at the Pentagon. He has formed a 70-member peace council in recent weeks to work towards negotiations.
General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But he added it was premature to say whether those Taliban were willing to accept Karzai's terms for pursuing reconciliation.
NATO's top civilian in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, last week described contacts as being in an "embryonic stage" and unlikely to bear fruit soon.