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By Hamid Shalizi and Missy Ryan
KABUL (Reuters) - A delegation from Afghanistan's High Peace Council has travelled to Dubai to meet former and current Taliban figures, in the hope of laying the groundwork for peace talks to end Afghanistan's long conflict, sources familiar with the move told Reuters.
Officials led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai, travelled on Sunday to the United Arab Emirates, officials from the High Peace Council and the Afghan government confirmed.
The delegation planned to meet a group of Taliban figures led by Agha Jan Mutassim, who was a finance minister during the Taliban's 1996-2001 government, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The trip comes on the heels of a gathering Mutassim recently convened in Dubai, which Afghan officials said included 16 high-ranking former and current Taliban figures, the officials said, including six former Taliban ministers and half a dozen men said to be current commanders in the militant group.
After that meeting, Mutassim, who was once a powerful figure in the Taliban's political committee but whose links to the group are now unclear, said in a statement that the participants had "insisted in one voice on a discussion among all Afghans, and the need to find a peaceful solution."
While the Peace Council delegation travelled to Dubai because the Taliban figures indicated they would be willing to meet with Afghan government representatives - an unusual move for any member of the Taliban - it was not clear whether all of the participants would follow through, the officials said.
If the Peace Council delegates do hold talks with the Taliban figures it could mark a step forward in the Karzai government's efforts to kindle dialogue with important members of an insurgency that has lasted for more than 12 years.
It would also be a personal vindication for Karzai, long displeased by the Taliban leadership's willingness to hold talks only with Western or Arab officials, as he prepares to step down after April elections.
For years, the Taliban's reclusive leadership, believed to be located in Pakistan under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, has refused to negotiate directly with the government of Karzai, whom the Taliban says is an illegitimate leader.
The Karzai government has held informal talks with Taliban figures since 2001, but appears to have renewed its effort to establish a substantial dialogue with key militant representatives in recent months.
Afghan officials said they met representatives of Mullah Omar's faction of the Taliban, who are based in Qatar, earlier this year. But those talks do not have appear to have established a negotiating track and a Taliban spokesman denied the talks took place.
A STEP FORWARD?
Karzai's government welcomed the Dubai meeting led by Mutassim.
"The National Security Council meeting chaired by President Hamid Karzai welcomed the (Mutassim) statement, and said it supports efforts to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis," the government said in a statement issued on Sunday.
It remains to be seen whether the apparent willingness of Mutassim or other Taliban figures in Dubai to meet members of High Peace Council, which was formed to support a hoped-for political end to the war, reflects a new openness on the part of the movement's leadership in Pakistan.
Mutassim has been based in Turkey since being shot under unclear circumstances in Karachi, Pakistan, several years ago, and it is in dispute whether he remains a member of the group.
The Afghan government official said it was significant that the Taliban had not yet rejected the Dubai meeting led by Mutassim. "This means something," the official said.
The Afghan government said Abdul Raqib, a former Taliban refugees minister who attended Mutassim's recent meeting, was killed on Monday in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border. Police in Pakistan confirmed that the former Taliban minister had been shot in Peshawar for unknown reasons.
"We strongly condemn the killing of the Taliban minister in Peshawar. He supported the success of the peace process with the High Peace Council," said Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi.
"Whenever Taliban leaders show willingness to talk to the Afghan side, they are targeted and killed," the government official said.
But the Taliban also condemned the former minister's death.
"We have learned with great sadness that the former refugee minister ... Abdul Raqib was martyred by the cunning enemy," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
"The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns this cowardly act," he said, using the name the Taliban government used when in power. It was unclear who exactly the Taliban believed was behind the attack.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, for its part, has sought for years to establish a peace process between the Afghan parties. U.S. officials held initial talks with a representative of Mullah Omar to discuss a potential exchange of prisoners that could lead to eventual political talks, but those discussions have been on hold since last summer.
The U.S.-backed process has not yet led to substantive talks about the future of Afghanistan, where more than 12 years after the Taliban government was toppled, Taliban-linked militants continue to clash with Afghan and foreign forces.
Foreign troops are steadily departing Afghanistan ahead of a year-end deadline to wind down the international mission here. As Karzai refuses to sign a bilateral security deal that would permit U.S. forces to stay beyond 2014, it remains unclear whether any foreign troops will stay after this year.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul and Hameedullah Khan in Peshawar; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Jon Boyle and Catherine Evans)