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US offers 'safe passage' to Afghan Taliban leaders

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The United States and Afghanistan have agreed to "give safe passage" to representatives of the Afghan Taliban to help them to enter future peace talks, officials announced Friday.

It may  represent a significant step forward towards the resumption of peace talks that were suspended in Qatar last month, and  comes just weeks ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago on the future of Afghanistan. 

Speaking at a joint press conference with U.S. Special Envoy Marc Grossman and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani,  Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Javed Ludin said: "Time is short, peace is urgent."

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"We need to find and encourage and create safe passage for peace talks," with the Afghan Taliban, he added.

His comments came after the three countries held their sixth meeting aimed at political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

A U.S. Embassy official confirmed to NBC News that the countries have agreed to allow and facilitate travel of the Afghan militants to participate in any future talks. The official said details of how it would work in practice have not been announced.

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Jilani announced the establishment of two new groups, one to represent the efforts of the three countries at the United Nations, and another responsible for "safe passage." "Safe passage will be to help bring Afghan Taliban in to peace talks," he told NBC News.

Rahmat Gul / AP

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Talks were suspended last month amid a string of public setbacks that have scandalized and angered Afghans, notably U.S. soldiers' burning of copies of the Koran and the killing of 16 Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier is in custody.

Dr Gareth Price, senior research fellow at Britain's Chatham House think thank, told msnbc.com the move could be seen as a "confidence-building measure".

"The US has made clear it will remain in Afghanistan in some form - that's the stick, if you like, so maybe this is the carrot," he said.

On Tuesday, White House sources told Reuters that President Barack Obama's administration may hand over a Taliban detainee at Guantanamo Bay prison directly to the Afghan government in order to help revive peace talks.

As foreign forces prepare to exit Afghanistan, the White House had hoped to lay the groundwork for peace talks by sending five Taliban prisoners, some seen as among the most threatening detainees at Guantanamo, to Qatar to rejoin other Taliban members opening a political office there. 

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While that plan has not been scotched entirely, several sources familiar with preliminary discussions within the U.S. government said the United States may instead, as an initial gesture meant to revive diplomacy, send one of those detainees directly to Afghan government custody. 

The sources identified the detainee as a former Taliban regional governor named Khairullah Khairkhwa, who is seen by American officials as less dangerous than other senior Taliban detainees now held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. 

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More than a year ago, the White House launched what began as a secretive diplomatic bid to coax the Taliban, the Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan until 2001, into peace talks. That campaign has become central to U.S. strategy as officials conclude the Afghan war will not end on the battlefield alone. 

Five alleged members of the Taliban are being detained in Afghanistan after authorities discovered a huge amount of explosives in a truck. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

It remains far from clear whether the Taliban would embrace sharing power in Afghanistan and whether the militants are cohesive enough to agree on a joint diplomatic approach. 

But Washington's strategy, before the summit in Chicago, is to build on what officials see as military progress against the Taliban, and encouraging signs from the Afghan and Pakistani governments, to heap pressure on the Islamist group. 

The Chicago summit is expected to further detail plans for the withdrawal of most of NATO's 130,000 troops there by the end of 2014 and set the course for future ties between Afghanistan and the West.

After an 18-hour assault, the Taliban took responsibility for the destruction. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

U.S. efforts to broker the talks were dealt a blow last month when the Taliban suspended its participation and appeared to reject even minimal restrictions for prisoner transfer. 

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Meanwhile, President Obama has reviewed potential threats to the United States before next week's anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, but there is no concrete evidence al-Qaida is plotting any revenge attacks, the White House said on Thursday. 

U.S. Navy SEALs shot bin Laden last year in a raid on the al-Qaida leader's compound in Pakistan before dawn on May 2 local time, which was May 1 in the United States. The killing is touted by the Obama administration as one of its top national security accomplishments. 

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"At this time, we have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the United States to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden's death," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday. 

Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. forces found and killed the al-Qaida leader in the affluent Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where he had been living in a large compound.

That assessment was echoed in an FBI and Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin issued on Wednesday to state and local law enforcement agencies. 

The bulletin said U.S. agencies "have not detected signs of homeland plotting by these groups in the intervening months." 

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Despite the lack of evidence of a threat, the bulletin cautioned that al-Qaida "probably would view a homeland attack on this anniversary as a symbolic victory that would help reassert the group's global relevance following the major leadership losses and operation setbacks it has suffered over the past year." 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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