A former high-ranking member of the Taliban has made the first visit to Britain by a member of the regime to take part in secret negotiations.
Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, a member of the Taliban government before September 11, visited London last week amid closely controlled security.
Zaeef, who is still said to be close to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, attended a closed conference part funded by the Foreign Office to discuss peace proposals aimed at ending the fighting.
The Taliban leader arrived in Britain on Wednesday and stayed in a central London hotel. He was banned from speaking publicly by the terms of his visa but is thought to have held private meetings with British officials.
Britain is attempting to facilitate talks between Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, and senior members of the Taliban.
A senior Foreign Office official said last month that senior members of the Taliban have been putting out “feelers” about making peace with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
Zaeef is the first individual linked to the Taliban regime to have been granted a visa to travel to Britain.
His name was only removed from a UN Security Council blacklist last summer, at the request of Mr Karzai.
The conference at King’s College, London, brought together opinions from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the United States and Britain.
Discussions have also taken place in the United Arab Emirates as Kabul and the coalition powers attempt to find a political solution to Afghanistan’s problems.
The Afghan conference in London 12 months ago, attended by President Karzai, laid down three conditions for the Taliban’s participation in government ¬ giving up the armed struggle, renouncing al-Qaeda and working within the Afghan constitution.
However the current talks are thought to be conducted without preconditions, although Foreign Office sources say they do not want to “shine too much light” on the process, for fear of bringing delicate negotiations to a halt.
“I would stress that this isn’t something where you are going to suddenly see a big breakthrough,” one official said.
President Karzai is believed to have requested at least 20 figures linked to the Taliban regime should be delisted by the UN sanctions committee as part of confidence building measures.
The Afghan High Peace Council, founded in September and headed by the former fighter Borhanuddin Rabbani, has conducted five trips around Afghanistan and one to Pakistan.
There is also a separate reconciliation and reintegration effort going on at a local level, led by regional governors who have been “empowered” to find local solutions to the insurgency.
Zaeef is thought to have opened direct contact with Mullah Omar, who is rumoured to be hiding out in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, although the outcome of such conversations is unclear.
Zaeef is also believed to be a key intermediary in a secret dialogue involving top Taliban commanders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban.
After September 11 he was handed over to US forces by Pakistan and taken to the prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
He was held in Guantánamo Bay until 2005, and was released after signing a bond committing him not to engage in anti-US activities. He was moved into a safe-house in Kabul where he lives under armed guard.