KABUL/LASHKAR GAH (Reuters) -- Taliban leaders will decide soon whether to join talks with the Afghan government, a militant spokesman said, after President Hamid Karzai invited them to a peace council aimed at ending the Afghan war.
In the country's south, suicide attackers launched an assault in the capital of Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province, and gunmen were holed up in a building battling government and NATO troops who returned fire with helicopter strikes.
On January 28, 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.
The call came amid a diplomatic push from Western powers involved in the Afghanistan conflict to make hard plans that would pave the way for them to begin withdrawing their troops.
Under Karzai's proposal, the West would not be directly involved in peace talks. A separate plan backed by Washington and its allies would set up a fund to reintegrate Taliban fighters by luring them away from the insurgency with jobs and cash.
A Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan declined to talk in detail about Karzai's plans and only said the militants would make a decision about his offer "soon."
"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.
The Taliban have said repeatedly that negotiations with the Afghan government can only take place when foreign troops completely withdraw from Afghanistan and have called the reintegration plans a "trick."
A big Pashtun tribe in east Afghanistan, the Shinwari, meanwhile, announced it would help the Afghan government in its efforts to fight the Taliban in return for construction projects for the community.
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 emphasised 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 eight-year-old war that has no pure military solution.
A United Nations official told Reuters on Thursday that the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, had met with members of the Taliban Quetta Shura in Dubai on Jan. 8.
Eide told Britain's BBC no meeting took place that day, but would not discuss meetings that may have happened on other dates.
A UN spokesman in Kabul said: "as always the United Nations stands ready to assist in this process in any way that we can."
In Helmand, four gunmen wearing suicide vests were locked in a gunbattle with Afghan security forces inside a building in provincial capital Lashkar Gah, a police official said.
Afghan army colonel Abdul Fatah told Reuters two of the suicide bombers had blown themselves up, wounding four Afghan soldiers, adding no one had yet been killed.
A NATO spokesman, U.S. Army Lieutenant Nico Melendez, said: "The coordinated attempt by the insurgents is ongoing but is being contained by ANA and ISAF forces," referring to the Afghan National Army and the International Security Assistance Force.
"Attack helicopters are over the city and have fired upon insurgents and we have no reports of casualties at this time," he said. He said he had no reports of suicide bombings.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf said seven suicide bombers were involved in the attack at three different locations 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 some 70,000 Americans, struggling to turn the tide on an insurgency which killed record numbers of civilian 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.