DUBAI: The Afghan Taliban said Sunday that its "political office" in Qatar is the only entity authorized to carry out negotiations on its behalf, reinforcing the authority of the man who took control of the group amid a tussle over command following the death of long-time leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Taliban made the declaration in a summary emailed by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid of a statement it made during unofficial, closed-door talks taking place in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Calling itself the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the group also laid out a series of demands including the release of an unspecified number of prisoners and the removal of senior members from a UN blacklist. It described the demands as "preliminary steps needed for peace."
The talks in Qatar are organized by Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group focused on resolving conflict. Pugwash last year organized similar talks that were also attended by Afghan officials.
The discussions are separate from official peace efforts involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States. Those negotiations, which do not include the Taliban but aim to pave the way for talks between the militants and Kabul, are expected to resume in Islamabad on February 6.
Earlier peace talks faltered last summer after the Afghan government announced Mullah Omar had been dead since 2013. That announcement prompted the Taliban to pull out of talks and led to a power struggle within the group over who would represent it.
Members of the Taliban's unofficial Qatar office are believed to be directly linked to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who officially assumed the top position after Omar's death was announced last year. He was previously Omar's long-serving deputy.
The Taliban first opened an office in Qatar in 2013, but when it hoisted the white flag flown during the Taliban's five-year rule of Afghanistan it sparked outrage from then-President Hamid Karzai and the US. The move derailed a previous round of peace talks and led to the Taliban office being officially closed in 2013. Members of the group have remained in the oil and gas-rich country, however.
In 2014, Qatar helped American officials negotiate the release of captive US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees sent to Qatar from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In its statement from the latest Qatar talks, the Taliban said it is serious about peace should it succeed in its aims of ending foreign intervention in Afghanistan and establishing an "independent Islamic system." It said it is committed to "civil activities," free speech and "women's rights in the light of Islamic rules, national interests and values."
The group added that it wants good relations with the world "on the basis of mutual respect."
"We do not want to interfere in others' affairs, nor do we use our soil to harm others, nor allow others to interfere in our affairs," it said.