U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday the Taliban may be willing to hold talks with the United Nations on minimizing civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Ban cited two statements from the Taliban prompted by a recent U.N. report on civilian casualties as "perhaps indicating a willingness to engage."
"I encourage a meaningful dialogue to reduce this intolerable, continuing death toll and to protect civilians," Ban told the Security Council on Tuesday.
U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Ban was referring to engagement with the U.N., not the Afghan government.
According to a recent U.N. report, 2,754 Afghan civilians were killed in 2012, down 12 percent from 3,131 in 2011, but the number killed in the second half of last year rose, suggesting that Afghanistan is likely to face continued violence as the Taliban and other militants fight for control following the withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces next year.
The U.N. said the Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 81 percent of the civilian deaths and injuries in 2012, a figure the Taliban denies.
Haq said the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, welcomed an open letter from the Taliban on Feb. 22 "as an invitation to engage in meaningful dialogue on human rights and humanitarian issues," focusing on increasing protection of civilians and verification of civilian casualties.
Ban said the government and international forces in Afghanistan have taken measures to reduce the impact of their operations on civilians.
"Anti-government groups must now live up to their public statement and international obligations to cease targeting civilians, using children in suicide operations, attacking public places and using victim-activated pressure-plate explosives," Ban said.
The U.N. chief said he is especially concerned about the 20 percent increase in civilian casualties among women and girls last year.
The secretary-general spoke before the Security Council voted unanimously to extend UNAMA's mandate until March 19, 2014.
The resolution gave strong backing to the U.N.'s role in supporting Afghanistan as the government takes over full responsibility for the country's security, governance, and economic and social development in 2014 as international forces leave.
It welcomed "recent momentum" in Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts led by the High Peace Council and the decision of some Taliban members to reconcile with the government.
At the same time, the Security Council underscored the insecurity in Afghanistan and the "alarming threats posed by the Taliban, al-Qaida and other violent and extremist groups," criminals, and drug traffickers. It also expressed serious concern at the high number of civilian casualties, especially women and children, "the increasingly large majority of which are caused by the Taliban, al-Qaida and other violent and extremist groups."
The Taliban have long refused to speak directly with President Hamid Karzai or his government, which they view as a puppet of foreign powers. They have said they will negotiate only with the United States, which held secret talks with them in the Gulf state of Qatar. But at Karzai's insistence, the U.S. has since sought to have the insurgents speak directly with the Afghan government.
Taliban interlocutors have had back-channel discussions and private meetings with representatives from various countries. A senior U.S. official told the Associated Press that the Taliban are talking to representatives of more than 30 countries, and indirectly with the U.S.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told the council that "Afghan-led reconciliation is important for stability — the best way to end conflict and bring peace to Afghanistan and the region."
"We continue to support the opening of an office in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate negotiations between the High Peace Council and the authorized representatives of the Taliban," she said.
Afghan opposition parties, taking advantage of the government's lack of progress in making peace with the Taliban, have opened their own channel to the Taliban and militant groups in hopes of putting their imprint on a deal to end 11 years of war and position themselves for next year's presidential and provincial elections. Taliban and opposition leaders confirmed to The Associated Press that they have been talking since the beginning of the year.
Afghanistan's U.N. Ambassador Zahir Tanin said peace talks with armed opposition groups are essential for a successful election.
"The Afghan government is doing its utmost to ensure the success of the reconciliation process (and) the High Peace Council has recently taken necessary steps to galvanize the reconciliation efforts," Tanin said.