By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban have kidnapped a member of Afghanistan's peace council during a bid to promote talks in the volatile east, underscoring the difficulty negotiators face in winning support for nascent negotiations from the Taliban front line.
Mavlawi Shafihullah Shafih, a low level member of the High Peace Council set up by President Hamid Karzai to liaise with insurgents, disappeared on Friday in the Asmar district of the eastern province of Kunar, authorities said on Sunday.
Shafih, a former education department head in neighboring Nuristan province, had travelled from Kabul to meet insurgents and encourage them to join the peace process after Taliban leaders proposed opening a representative office in Qatar.
"As soon as he left his car Taliban captured him," said Shahzada Shahid, another member of the 70-member council who had travelled to the Kunar capital of Asadabad in an effort to free Shafih with support from community elders.
Shafih's abduction comes four months after the head of the High Peace Council, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by an insurgent carrying a bomb hidden in his turban. The attack wounded four people, including Masoom Stanekzai, head of the council's secretariat.
It also comes after an offer by the Taliban's leadership to open an office in Qatar to lay the ground for possible peace talks with the United States and its main allies, including the Afghan government.
Fazlullah Wahidi, the provincial governor for Kunar, said Shafih had been carrying a letter from a senior member of the peace council to give to insurgents in Kunar, which lies along the rugged and porous border with Pakistan.
A Taliban spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Mohammad Ewaz Naziri, the Kunar police chief, said Shafih had not alerted authorities of his visit.
"He went to Asmar without informing us. We don't know where and how he went missing," he said.
Two senior council members told Reuters last week that they believed the Taliban were willing to soften hardline ideologies in order to end the war with NATO and Afghan forces ahead of the departure of foreign combat troops in 2014.
But Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the council's adviser on foreign relations, said while he saw signs of moderation among the Taliban leadership, a peace deal had the potential to split front-line fighters with more hardline views.
(Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)