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New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan - Several Taliban negotiators have begun meeting with U.S. officials in Qatar, where they are discussing preliminary trust-building measures, including a possible prisoner exchange, several former Taliban officials said Saturday.

The former officials said four to eight Taliban representatives had traveled from to Qatar from Pakistan to set up a political office for the exiled Afghan insurgent group.

The comments suggested that the Taliban, which has not publicly said it would engage in peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, was at least gearing up for preliminary discussions.

But the former Taliban officials, interviewed Saturday here in Kabul, were careful not to call the discussions peace talks, and U.S. officials would not confirm or deny that meetings had taken place.

"Currently there are no peace talks going on," said Maulavi Qalamuddin Latifi, the former minister of vice and virtue for the Taliban, who is now a member of the High Peace Council. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."

The State Department has said that Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had meetings related to Afghanistan when he visited Qatar last week.

"He did have a number of meetings in Qatar focused on national reconciliation issues," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a briefing in Washington on Thursday, but did not elaborate on their substance.

The Taliban's announcement this month that it would open an office in Qatar, which could allow for direct negotiations, drew fire from some Afghan factions as well as some U.S. policymakers, who fear the insurgents would use negotiations only to gain legitimacy and then continue their efforts to reimpose an extremist Islamic state in Afghanistan.

The Taliban officials now in Qatar include Tayeb Agha, a former secretary to the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, and several others. Most of them served as diplomats in the Taliban's embassies or as midlevel government officials when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, according to former Taliban officials.