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Members of Afghanistan's peace council, pictured here at an October meeting, say the Taliban is ready to begin peace talks. ((Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press))

Afghanistan's former president, who heads a new peace council, said he's convinced the Taliban are ready to negotiate peace.

Burhanuddin Rabbani told reporters in Kabul on Thursday that the Taliban have expressed some conditions for starting negotiations during initial discussions, but they are ready to talk.

"We are taking our first steps," he said. "I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk. They are ready."

"It gives us hope that they want to talk and negotiate," Rabbani said.

Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Karzai adviser, said he is getting strong support for the peace process from the international community.

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Speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the U.S. is following the Afghan talks closely. ((Virginia Mayo/Associated Press))

The Afghan government has acknowledged that it has been involved in reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but discussions between the two sides have been described as mostly informal and indirect message exchanges relying on mediators.

The Afghan Taliban, meanwhile, have denied having discussions. In a message posted on its website this week, the group said the notion of talks with the enemy was "baseless propaganda" and that negotiations would be a "waste of time."

In Brussels on Wednesday, a senior NATO official confirmed that it has provided safe passage for top Taliban leaders to travel to Kabul for face-to-face negotiations with the Afghan government. It was the most detailed indication so far of U.S. and NATO support of clandestine talks aimed at bringing an end to the nine-year-old war.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the subject publicly.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said the United States has a say in talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even if U.S. officials aren't sitting at the peace table.

Gates said any reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents has to be led by Afghans. But he told a NATO press conference Thursday that the U.S. is offering advice and has kept an ear on the initial talks.

Gates said reconciliation efforts may not bear fruit anytime soon, but he said the effort is worth making.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added that the U.S. supports what the Afghans are doing, but isn't ready to make any judgment about how far the talks should go.

Elders can mediate

Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai who also spoke with reporters, confirmed the contacts that were conducted with coalition support.

"There are people who have had contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban," Stanekzai said, declining to identify the players. "The elders of this country, the clerics of this country — they can mediate to form a bridge."

He said those who want to join to the peace process must be provided safety and security.

"The comings and goings are continuing," he said. "We are now at the beginning steps of our work."

Stanekzai said the Afghan government was getting strong support for the peace process from the international community, but that negotiations with the Taliban must be led by Afghans.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his country would be part of the process.

"Look, nothing can happen without us, because we are part of the solution. We are not part of the problem," Gilani said.

Stanekzai said he welcomes Pakistan's help in finding a peaceful resolution to the war, but that Afghanistan would not go through Pakistan to talk to the Taliban.