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Turkey considers Afghan peace role

Turkey said Monday it is willing to host a political office for Taliban militants from Afghanistan in order to promote talks to end the war there, and an Afghan official said Turkish planning is already in progress.

Turkey contributes troops to NATO's Afghan operation, albeit in a noncombat role, and it has sought to mediate as a regional power in a variety of conflicts beyond its borders. However, hardline elements of the Taliban, whose leaders are based in southwest Pakistan, have publicly derided Afghan government efforts to promote peace and say no talks are possible until foreign forces leave Afghan soil.

A possible role for Turkey, the largest Muslim voice in NATO, in Afghan peace efforts would fit U.S.-backed initiatives to seek a political solution to the nearly decade-old insurgency amid a realization that military force alone is unlikely to end it.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that he talked last month about hosting a Taliban office with Burhanuddin Rabbani, a visiting former president of Afghanistan who leads a peace council set up by the Afghan government to work toward a political solution.

"We discussed in detail their request to (establish) such an office and said that we are ready to do everything possible for this process," Davutoglu said Monday on a trip to Hungary. "If there is such a demand, Turkey will help with full capacity."

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official earlier said there was no official application to open a Taliban office in Turkey and that there were no immediate plans to host Afghan peace talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry regulations.

Arsala Rahmani, a member of the Afghan peace council, said Turkey is already making plans for the office but it will take time to work out. Council members had asked Turkey for an office or place where representatives from the Taliban could meet officials from the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and others without fearing for their lives.

"Turkey didn't say no," Rahmani said. "It is a key issue for resolving the situation in Afghanistan. It's important for the Taliban to have a political address — a place — to talk to the world face to face. We have said in the past that without an address, solving the problem will be difficult."

The council members say informal contacts have been made with Taliban figures, but no formal negotiations are under way.

A U.N. resolution imposes a travel ban on former Taliban leaders and people associated with the insurgency. The ban calls on all U.N. member states to prevent the entry or transit through their country of anyone on the list, which includes dozens of people. Although NATO has agreed to provide safe passage to Taliban figures willing to talk peace, it is unclear if the alliance would fly them to another country outside the region.

In February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced support for reconciliation efforts, saying the United States was launching a "diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaida, ends the insurgency, and helps to produce not only a more stable Afghanistan but a more stable region."

Turkey and the U.S. have held several rounds of talks on Afghanistan since 2009, and Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Turkey had a key role to play in diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

A report issued last month by The Century Foundation, a nonprofit research institution based in New York and Washington, said some Taliban insurgents have expressed interest in having a liaison office in a safe place. It said "the desire to establish a liaison office is a reflection of broader concern about the ability of the Taliban to function as an independent political movement, free from Pakistani supervision."

Even so, the report said, contacts would likely continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other locations.

"This is a reflection of the geographic dispersion of insurgent networks and leaders, and the complicated relationships that exist within the insurgency," it said.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was to arrive in Turkey late Monday, and Afghanistan is expected to be high on the agenda of talks. Any solution to the Afghan conflict would likely require the support of Pakistan, and in particular elements of its security forces that are believed to have links to insurgents in Afghanistan.

Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, coordinator of the Eurasia Strategic Research Center, a research center based in Ankara, said the opening of a Taliban office in Turkey would boost the legitimacy of the insurgents.

"The idea also signals that there is an agreement with Pakistan over integrating the Taliban into the political system in a new Afghanistan," he said.

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Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.