Former members of the Taliban will attend the Bonn conference next week in Germany on the future of Afghanistan after 2014, senior Afghan government officials have said.
The Afghan government's public list of invitations to the meeting, viewed as crucial to hammering out the country's future as the United States withdraws, excludes all current and former members of the Taliban. But the organisation's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef and its former foreign minister Wakil Motawakil have left Kabul and are in France with former interior minister Hanif Atmar for discussions in advance of the gathering, Mr Atmar's office said.
Other Afghan officials confirmed the claim. It is unclear whether they are attending as part of the government's official delegation or not. They are expected to engage in talks on the sidelines of the conference.
The group's attendance contradicts the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, who insists there is no place for the Taliban at Bonn. But it may encourage those who believe that, with Pakistan having declared its refusal to attend after a Nato air strike killed 24 of its soldiers last week, the discussions will be carried out without parties who will play a significant role in the country's future. Iran and Uzbekistan, two other important regional powers, will also not be attending.
President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesperson denied the Taliban's official participation. Aimal Faizi wrote in an email: "There are reports that Mr Zaeef and Mr Motawakil are both invited by a German organisation to the Bonn conference. This is what we are hearing. But I attest that no former Taliban officials are invited by the Afghan government."
But one official said they were part of the government delegation. He added that other former members of the Taliban were scheduled to attend but were not part of the official representation.
"There has been quite a lot of interest among former members of the Taliban in attending," he said.
The Afghan government is still finalising its list of delegates. There is a list containing less controversial delegates and a "top-secret" list being closely guarded by the National Security Council, which is thought to contain the names of former and current members of the Taliban. Tayyeb Agha, who led the Taliban side in secret peace talks with the US, "might" be on that list, a Security Council source said.
Pakistan's boycott did appear to be in some doubt last night when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hinted at a condition for attending Bonn after being called by Washington and Kabul to reconsider his decision not to attend.
"If we go to Bonn for you then who will guarantee our security?" Mr Gilani told reporters he had asked Mr Karzai during a telephone conversation.