Taliban leaders have no immediate answer to President Hamid Karzai's offer of talks with the Afghan government but will respond soon, a militant spokesman said on Friday, after Karzai invited them to a peace council, Reuters reported.
In the country's south, suicide attackers launched an assault in the capital of Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province, with gunmen holed up in three buildings, battling government and
NATO troops who returned fire with helicopter strikes.
When the fighting stopped before dusk a Reuters reporter at the scene saw the bullet-riddled bodies of four gunmen dragged out of a building by Afghan troops and displayed in the street. Two of the dead gunmen wore police uniforms.
On Thursday, at a major conference on Afghanistan, Karzai set the framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders when he called on the Islamist group's leadership to take part in a "loya jirga" -- or large assembly of elders -- to initiate peace talks.
A Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan declined to talk in detail about Karzai's plans and only said the militants would make a decision "soon" about his offer.
"I cannot say a word regarding these peace talks. The Taliban leadership will soon decide whether to take part," the spokesman, who uses the name Qari Mohammad Yousuf, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Western countries have increasingly been supportive in public of moves to reach out to fighters to end the 8-year-old war. In an interview in the Financial Times earlier this week, the military commander of U.S. and NATO troops, General Stanley McChrystal, backed talking to some Taliban members.
The Taliban however have said repeatedly that negotiations with the Afghan government should only take place when foreign troops completely withdraw from Afghanistan.
In a statement issued during Thursday's conference, the militants mocked McChrystal's interview as evidence of Western military defeat and "psychological disease", and repeated a longstanding rejection of any deal that included asylum abroad.
"The invaders think that the committed Mujahideen of Afghanistan are like their mercenary soldiers who lost their lives in mountains and deserts of Afghanistan for obtainment of a few dollars," said the statement, posted in English at Taliban website alemarah.info.
"The fundamental solution of the tragedy of Afghanistan lies in withdrawal of the invading forces from Afghanistan."
Nonetheless, in what U.S. officials called an encouraging sign, a big Pashtun tribe in east Afghanistan, the Shinwari, announced it would help the Afghan government fight the Taliban.
The tribe's head, Malek Osman, said he would impose a fine on anyone in his district who worked with the Taliban, and urged one man of fighting age from each family to join the army or police.
SHIFT IN TONE, NOT POLICY
Karzai's endorsement of talks in London does not represent a change of policy: he announced last year he planned to invite Taliban leaders to the peace conference, and has repeatedly emphasized his hope they would join talks.
Previous contacts between the government and Taliban representatives have made little progress, and many regional experts say the Taliban are unlikely to offer concessions while they feel they are winning the war.
An Afghan government mediator told Reuters this week the Taliban are also likely to demand the release of prisoners and the removal of Taliban leaders from blacklists, something U.S. officials have said is out of the question.
Nevertheless, the government in Kabul and its Western backers have increasingly signaled their hope for a negotiated end to an 8-year-old war that has no pure military solution.
A United Nations official told Reuters on Thursday the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, had met representatives of the Taliban leadership in Dubai on January 8. Eide told Britain's BBC no meeting took place that day, but he would not discuss meetings that might have happened on other dates.
Eide is due to leave his post soon, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played down his role on Friday: "I will let him speak for himself. He's not going to be part of our efforts going forward," she told reporters in Paris.
Friday's attack in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, followed an increasingly common pattern of fighters launching commando-style raids in small bands and seizing buildings in towns throughout the south and east as well as the capital Kabul.
Afghan authorities said two suicide bombers blew themselves up, wounding four policemen, and gunmen later spent the day holed up in a commercial building repelling a siege with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, before they were overpowered.
"Five attackers were killed by Afghan security forces and the operation is now over," Afghan Army General Sher Mohammad Zazai told Reuters near nightfall. Full details of other casualties were not immediately released.
NATO spokesman Lieutenant Nico Melendez said international forces had provided backup with attack helicopters.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf said seven suicide bombers were involved in the attack at three sites in the city. Helmand has seen the heaviest fighting of the war, with about 20,000 foreign troops, roughly half British and half American.
Some 110,000 troops are in Afghanistan, including 70,000 Americans, struggling to turn the tide on an insurgency which killed record numbers of civilians and foreign troops in 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said U.S. troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, and Karzai has said Afghan security forces will be prepared to start taking over security in some provinces a few months earlier.