United Nations: The UN Security Council will consider Friday removing about 20 former senior Taliban commanders from an international sanctions list to boost reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan, diplomats said.
In another sign that the international coalition in Afghanistan wants a negotiated peace, the council will also divide the UN sanctions list between al-Qaida and the Taliban to draw a distinction between them.
The United States is driving the new diplomatic campaign to entice the militant group it is fighting a war against in Afghanistan into talks, diplomats said.
President Barack Obama has set July as the target date to begin reducing the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month there could be talks with the Taliban before the end of the year.
Western officials in Kabul say they are trying to set up communication channels with Taliban leaders but stress this remains at a very early stage.
The list of former Taliban figures includes five members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s Higher Council of Peace, which he set up last year to seek peace talks with Afghanistan`s former hardline rulers.
One of them, Mohammed Qalamuddin, was once head of the Taliban`s feared religious police.
The United States and its allies have insisted, however, that there must be strict conditions for getting off the sanctions list, which currently has 135 Taliban names. There are also 254 al-Qaida members on the list, reduced since the killing last month of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden.
They will have to end links with al-Qaida, renounce violence and declare their support for the Afghan constitution.
Afghanistan`s UN Ambassador Zahir Tanin told AFP that removing the Taliban names from the list of figures facing a travel ban and assets freeze "would be an important psychological and political signal for the reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
"This is not an olive branch for terrorism," he insisted.
"It is important for Afghan people to see that what the Afghan government is doing is supported by the international community.
"It is not easy for them to understand when people who are involved in the political process are also on a UN blacklist."
The Security Council`s sanctions committee will meet to start the process of taking the names off the punishment list. The full Security Council will meet separately to pass two US-proposed resolutions to divide the sanctions lists into one for the Taliban and one for al-Qaida.
"Al-Qaida is a transnational, jihadist network, the Taliban is a national network. They can be treated differently," said one western diplomat.
A British official at the United Nations said bin Laden`s death "presents a clear opportunity for the Taliban to give a message that they want to separate themselves from Al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process in Afghanistan."
Britain, the second largest troop contributor in Afghanistan, has given strong backing to the US initiative. "We will not take any names off the list if they do not take concrete steps to reconciliation," said the official.
The Afghan government initially requested that up to 50 former Taliban figures be removed from the sanctions list. But diplomats said the government had not followed this up with support documentation for all those involved.
The diplomats added that resistance to the move from Russia, China and India had been overcome though some legal details were still to be worked out.