In a speech to Afghan students Saturday, President Hamid Karzai said approvingly that the United States had opened talks with the Taliban on ending its 10-year war against his government and foreign forces. "Peace talks have already started with them and it is going well," he said.
Mr. Karzai's statement goes far beyond what is usually said by western diplomats familiar with the episodic, and sometimes embarrassing, efforts to open negotiations with the Taliban. They have said talks are in their infancy, with little feedback from the side of the insurgents to indicate that leaders of the group are interested.
The Obama administration neither directly confirmed nor denied Mr. Karzai's statement.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. has "consistently supported an Afghan-led" peace process.
"Over the past two years, we have laid out our red lines for the Taliban: They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan," Mr. Toner said. "This is the price for reaching a political resolution and bringing an end to the military actions that are targeting their leadership and decimating their ranks."
Meanwhile, a suicide attack on a police station in the crowded centre of the Afghan capital killed nine people Saturday and set off a gun battle near several ministries and not far from the presidential palace.
The explosions and firefight erupted only hours after Mr. Karzai's statement.
The Taliban claimed credit for the Kabul attack, as it has for assassinations over the past two months of Afghan officials, soldiers and police officers across the country.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said five of the dead in the capital shoot-out and bombing were civilians, three were police officers and one was an intelligence agent.
Afghan security forces, along with Afghan government officials and ordinary workers employed by the NATO-led coalition here, are increasingly the targets of attacks by the Taliban and related insurgent groups.
In public statements taking credit for assassinations and bombings, the Taliban dismiss the Afghan government as a "puppet" and demand the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The government's peace council, which includes former Taliban officials, has argued that talks will go nowhere until the religious movement's leaders can travel freely outside their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
A first step to meeting their demands came on Friday, when the United Nations Security Council decided to set up separate sanctions lists for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whose members have long been linked on the same blacklist.
The Afghan government proposed that the names of some 18 of the 135 Taliban on the list be removed altogether. But former Taliban officials say that those men have long broken with the group and have no particular access to the secretive leadership. Five of them are on Mr. Karzai's peace council.
One of the more notorious is Mohammed Qalamuddin, who headed the feared religious police during the Taliban's five-year reign when men were beaten if they did not go to prayers and women were regularly beaten for any infraction of the regime's archaic restrictions.
Mr. Qalamuddin, who said he has been living "a simple life" in Kabul as a religion teacher in the public schools, said getting off the blacklist will mean nothing for him. "I don't need to travel the world," he said in an interview, adding that he also has no money in foreign banks that has been blocked.
"But the government should try to talk to the leadership of the Taliban," he said. "I'm hopeful there could be dialogue, god willing."
The latest attack in Kabul, on the first day of the work week, broke a month long period of relative calm in the city. The capital last experienced a large-scale attack since May when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-filled vest up at a military hospital. Six medical students died in that attack.
With files from the Associated Press