By Peter Graff
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government denied a report on Tuesday that it had been holding secret peace talks with the Taliban's number two leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, when he was arrested in Pakistan.
The announcement last month of Baradar's arrest in Karachi by U.S. and Pakistani agents has led to numerous unconfirmed media reports the former top Taliban military commander might have been talking to Kabul, and that may have led to his arrest.
Despite being the mastermind of years of suicide strikes and other attacks on Karzai's government, Baradar is Karzai's tribal kinsmen and therefore seen as someone who might be more likely than other militants to accept an invitation to talks.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Baradar was involved in "peace talks" with Karzai's government at the time of his arrest, quoting an unidentified aide to the Afghan president and a provincial official.
Several Afghan officials have told Reuters they had heard similar reports of talks, but none have been able to provide details such as dates, locations of meetings or names of participants that would corroborate the claims.
"There was no direct contact between the government of Afghanistan and Mullah Baradar," Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the latest reports.
Karzai has occasionally used go-betweens without official status in preliminary efforts to reach out to militants. Omer said he was not aware of any such unofficial contact with Baradar, but fell short of denying it.
"I cannot confirm this," he said. "I can only keep record of my government in contact with someone. Outside the government, I don't know."
Karzai has announced a high profile effort at reconciling with Taliban leaders this year, leading to speculation peace moves are afoot. The Taliban have publicly spurned his overtures.
Western officials in Afghanistan say Karzai's representatives have long been in contact with various Taliban leaders and commanders, often through kinship ties.
Last year, Karzai's representatives reached out to some insurgents through Saudi Arabia for "talks about talks", aimed at seeking a framework under which negotiations might be held.
Karzai has invited Taliban who lay down arms to attend a peace conference in Kabul set for late April or early May.
U.S. officials say serious progress in negotiations is unlikely just yet, but they hope it will become more likely this year if they succeed in applying more pressure on the battlefield with 30,000 extra troops sent by U.S. President Barack Obama.
After years in which Pakistan seemed reluctant to pursue Afghan militants on its territory, Baradar's sudden arrest has led to anxious speculation about Islamabad's motives.
Some have suggested the arrest was a bid by Pakistan to ensure its interests are represented at any future talks. Others have said it could be an effort to sabotage talks that had already begun. Still others say Baradar may have been arrested entirely by accident in a raid targeting someone else.
Omer said Karzai's main focus since Baradar was arrested is persuading Pakistan to turn him over to Afghanistan. Afghan officials say Pakistan agreed to hand Baradar over, but a Pakistani court has ruled that he cannot be extradited.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)