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Taliban Rejects Afghan Leader's Safety Vow

KABUL (Reuters) -- A Taliban militant leader has rejected an offer from Afghan President Hamid Karzai of safe passage for insurgent leaders who wanted to talk peace.

Karzai, back from a trip to Britain and the United States, said on November 16 he would guarantee the safety of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if he was prepared to negotiate.

With the Taliban insurgency intensifying seven years after the hard-line Islamists were forced from power, the possibility of talks with more moderate Taliban leaders is increasingly being considered, both in Afghanistan and among its allies.

The Afghan government says it is willing to talk to anyone who recognizes the constitution.

The Taliban have ruled out any talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. Karzai said on November 16 that condition was unacceptable.

Mullah Brother, deputy leader of the Taliban, rejected Karzai's offer of safe passage and again said foreign troops had to leave before negotiations could start.

"As long as foreign occupiers remain in Afghanistan, we aren't ready for talks because they hold the power and talks won't bear fruit.... The problems in Afghanistan are because of them," Brother said.

"We are safe in Afghanistan and we have no need for Hamid Karzai's offer of safety," he told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location, adding that the Taliban jihad, or holy war, would go on.

Violence in Afghanistan has surged over the past two years, raising doubts about prospects for the country and Western efforts to establish peace and build a stable state.

Some 70,000 foreign troops, around half of them U.S., are struggling against the Taliban, whose influence, and attacks, are spreading in the south, east and west.

The prospect of a bloody, drawn-out stalemate has focused attention on the possibility of talks. Negotiations with insurgents in Iraq are seen as having contributed to an improvement in security there.