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KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban could cut its ties with the militant al Qaeda group it once harbored as part of a peace agreement in Afghanistan, a former foreign minister for the austere Islamist movement said Wednesday.
But severing links with the radical Islamists behind the Sept 11, 2001, suicide attacks on the United States should not be a pre-condition for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said.
"Al Qaeda were in Afghanistan before as guests of the Taliban. Now they are allies in the fight," Muttawakil told Reuters. "Al Qaeda will not be allowed to create an obstacle ... it is the right of Afghans to negotiate for peace."
Muttawakil was part of a group of Afghans that met in Saudi Arabia last month for discussions on how to end the worsening conflict between the Taliban and the Western-backed Afghan government, now in its eighth year.
All sides agree there were no direct Taliban representatives present or that real peace talks took place in Mecca. But the start of efforts to find a negotiated solution has been seized on as a glimmer of hope amid the rising death toll in Afghanistan.
Muttawakil does not speak directly for the Taliban but is known to retain ties to the movement that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It was toppled by U.S.-led and Afghan forces for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leaders.
Muttawakil, known as a moderate in the hardline Taliban, surrendered in southern Afghanistan in 2002 and spent nearly two years in a local U.S.-run prison.
Talks would not start unless pre-conditions, such as the rejection of al Qaeda or the Taliban demand that all foreign forces leave, are set aside, he said.
"Negotiation is a tool for agreement and agreement is the objective. Neither side should impose pre-conditions on starting peace talks as pre-conditions would hamper the start of negotiations."
U.S. officials have given cautious backing to talks, provided al Qaeda is not part of them, the Taliban agrees to respect the Afghan constitution and Afghanistan remains intact.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked Saudi Arabia to mediate with his opponents and made a direct appeal to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to return home and talk, a plea rejected by a senior Taliban figure.
Diplomats say it will be enormously hard to get a clear answer from the loosely-organized Taliban movement, whose leaders are in hiding and which is backed by other radical groups, drug smugglers and criminal gangs operating on their own agenda.
Muttawakil said confidence-building measures were needed. The release of prisoners held by U.S. forces, the end of bounty hunting for Taliban leaders and taking key figures off black lists would be a start, he said.
Editing by Angus MacSwan