WASHINGTON: The New York Times said on Tuesday that a man it had described as a "Taliban leader" who had taken part in "secret peace talks" with the Afghan government was in fact an impostor.
The newspaper said the man had held three meetings with Nato and Afghan officials but that US officials had confirmed on Monday "they had given up hope" he was the leader identified as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.
"The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a Nato aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace," the newspaper said, again citing unidentified officials.
On October 20, The New York Times quoted an unidentified source as saying talks to end the war involved "extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders".
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported two senior Afghan officials believed the man was a "lowly shopkeeper" from Quetta, the Pakistan town where the Taliban leadership fled in late 2001.
A flurry of often unsourced, or at best guardedly sourced, newspaper reports out of the United States and Europe last month sparked interest that high-level talks, sponsored by Nato, had been held between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders.
However, senior Afghan, US and Nato officials have since said the "talks" were little more than initial contacts between the two sides that have been going on for the past two years.
Karzai said his government had not met anyone named Mansour. "Do not accept reports by foreign media regarding our meeting with Taliban leaders, it is all publicity and lies," he told a news conference at his palace on Tuesday.
The Afghan minister responsible for reintegrating insurgents told Reuters last month the talks were little more than "networking".
"We gave him a lot of money"
The New York Times said on Tuesday that high-level discussions conducted with the man they thought was Mansour "appear to have achieved little".
"It's not him," the newspaper quoted an unidentified Western diplomat in Kabul, who it said was intimately involved in the discussions, as saying. "And we gave him a lot of money."
Talks with the Taliban are part of a wider peace plan under Karzai which includes reintegrating Taliban footsoldiers and offering amnesties to senior leaders.
With the war now in its 10th year and casualties on all sides at record levels, the need for a negotiated settlement to the intractable conflict is being more widely recognised, including in Washington and European Nato capitals.
For their part, the Taliban consistently reject the idea of talks until all foreign troops -- now numbering about 150,000 -- have left Afghanistan.
Their secretive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, believed to be in hiding in Pakistan with the rest of the Taliban leadership, last week again ruled out talks, saying the subject was an attempt to "throw dust in the eyes" of Afghans.
Nato leaders agreed at a two-day summit in Lisbon last week to set 2014 as a target to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan, although some US and Nato leaders have tried to temper that timeline, saying the handover could spill into 2015.
US President Barack Obama, who will review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, wants to begin a gradual drawdown of US troops from July 2011.
The New York Times, again citing unidentified sources, said the real Mullah Mansour was thought to be the second most senior Taliban leader behind Omar.
One man at the third meeting, however, said he did not recognise "Mansour", the Times said. It said White House officials had asked it to withhold the names of "Mansour" and two other Taliban leaders from its October 20 story about peace talks because it might put their lives at risk and jeopardise the talks.
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