By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban said on Wednesday it had nothing to do with a recent meeting of former and current Taliban figures who appeared open to talks with the Afghan government, raising hope of a negotiated end to many years of bloodshed.
In a statement emailed to media organizations, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban remained opposed to direct talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom the Islamist insurgents regard as a Western agent.
"There was no meeting in Dubai in which the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) participated, nor are there any talks with the so-called Afghan Peace Council," Mujahid said, using the Taliban's name for its 1996-2001 government.
"Fake negotiations and dramas will not only complicate the matter and prolong the war, but they will not bear fruit."
On Sunday, Afghan officials said a delegation from Kabul's High Peace Council, a government body established to foster a political end to the war, had gone to Dubai in hopes of meeting with a group of former and current Taliban figures who had hinted at a readiness to hold talks.
The officials hoped to meet a group that gathered there earlier this month, hosted by a former Taliban minister named Agha Jan Mutassim. The trip seemed to raise the possibility of a breakthrough in the Western-backed Afghan government's long quest for direct peace talks among the Afghan parties.
Peace Council officials were not immediately available to confirm whom the delegates met with in Dubai, or indeed whether a meeting was held at all.
Mujahid said Mutassim, who was once the Taliban government's finance minister and played a key role in its political committee, no longer represented the Taliban leadership, which is believed to be in hiding in Pakistan.
Instead, Mujahid said, the Taliban had authorized only a "particular office" and "designated individuals" to conduct political activities on behalf of the group, which is led by the reclusive cleric Mullah Mohammed Omar.
TALIBAN MET US ENVOYS LAST YEAR
While the Taliban rejects substantive talks with the Afghan government, its representatives did hold preliminary discussions with U.S. officials, who sought to kindle a peace process, until that dialogue fell apart last year. Taliban representatives maintain a presence in Doha, Qatar.
The statement, which may present a setback to Karzai just months before he is due to step down after April elections, came as the Obama administration acts to restart its own effort to revive peace contacts, exploring a exchange of U.S. and Afghan prisoners as one step toward doing so.
But the road to peace is fraught with risk for all sides.
On Monday, a former Taliban refugees minister who attended Mutassim's recent meeting was gunned down in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border, by unknown assailants.
Both the Taliban and the Afghan government condemned the killing of former Taliban minister Abdul Raqib.
But Karzai's response to his death raised eyebrows in Afghanistan, where local forces are in bloody battle with Taliban militants as foreign troops prepare to withdraw ahead of a year-end deadline.
It also underscores the delicate line Afghan officials must tread as they seek to reach out to more moderate elements of a loosely organized insurgent movement while they fight others.
The Afghan government has long said it would welcome any Taliban back to Afghanistan and to the political process, as long as they lay down their arms and embrace the constitution and changes that have occurred in Afghanistan since 2001.
On Tuesday, Karzai's government transported Raqib's body to his home province in northern Afghanistan where hundreds of people, including local dignitaries, paid their respects, said Sunatullah Timur, spokesman for Takhar province governor.
Amrullah Saleh, who headed Afghanistan's spy agency until he stepped down in 2010 due to a dispute with Karzai, said in a post on his Facebook page that the show of respect to a high-ranking Taliban figure was "an insult to the blood of those are standing to defend the sovereignty".
Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, said it was the government's responsibility to bring Raqib's body to his home area because he was an Afghan citizen. "Secondly, Abdul Raqib tried hard to make the peace process successful," he said.
(Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)