The Taliban has formally refuted reports of secret meetings with Afghan government officials, insisting there has been no change in the group's policy for holding peace negotiations.
The Guardian newspaper, in an exclusive article published Tuesday, quoted anonymous Afghan officials and sources within the Taliban as confirming at least two interactions between the warring sides in September and early October. It said the meetings took place in Doha, capital of the Gulf state of Qatar, where Taliban political negotiators are based.
A source within the Afghan government in Kabul also confirmed the meetings to VOA, without sharing further details.
Afghan presidential spokesman Dawa Khan Menapal, without directly commenting on the Doha meetings, told VOA the government is making "all possible efforts" to engage with groups that are ready for peace talks, in order to promote stability in the country.
Afghan intelligence chief Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai reportedly led the discussions with Mullah Abdull Manan Akhund, brother of the deceased Taliban founder, and long-time leader Mullah Omar.
"We strongly reject reports about any such meetings and talks. Representatives of Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] have neither met Stanekzai nor any other officials of the Kabul regime," the insurgency's main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said late Tuesday.
In a statement sent to media, including VOA, Mujahid said the Taliban's policy about holding peace talks is "very clear and has not changed." He also urged the media to refrain from publishing unfounded reports.
The Taliban condemns President Ashraf Ghani's coalition government as a "puppet regime" and has vowed not to engage in any peace process until all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
The British paper quoted an unnamed Taliban official as claiming a senior American diplomat was present at the Qatar meetings, although the U.S. government has not commented on the reported claim.
Earlier, the Doha-based spokesman for the Taliban's so-called political office, Sohail Shaeen, also rejected any contacts with the Afghan government.
A preliminary round of peace talks between the warring sides took place in Pakistan in July 2015. U.S., Chinese and Pakistani officials were also present, but that process broke down after it was revealed that Taliban chief Mullah Omar had been dead for more than two years.
The killing of Omar's successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike this past May in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan diminished any remaining hopes for resuming the Afghan peace process.
The Taliban — under its new chief, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada — has since intensified insurgent activities across Afghanistan, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces and making significant territorial gains.
Ghani has recently concluded a peace deal with the Hizb-e-Islami insurgent faction led by controversial warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Under the agreement, the second-largest rebel group has agreed to abstain from violence in return for allowing its fugitive leaders, including Hekmatyar, to return to Afghanistan and participate in the national political process.
The Afghan president was able to secure financial pledges of around $15 billion at this month's donors' conference in Brussels to sustain the Afghan reconstruction process for the next four years.
But partner nations at the meeting underscored the need for a peaceful settlement through an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure long-term stability in Afghanistan.