A British newspaper reported Wednesday that British intelligence officers organized secret meetings with senior Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan over the summer.
The Daily Telegraph, citing an unidentified intelligence source, said officers from Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, have engaged in peace talks with up to a dozen Taliban officials.
The newspaper quoted the source as saying the intelligence officers were understood to have spoken directly to the Taliban.
Britain's Foreign Office did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment Wednesday, a national holiday in Britain.
Although Britain and its NATO allies are currently engaged in a fierce campaign to root out resurgent Taliban militants from Afghanistan's south, both British and Afghan officials have voiced increasing interest in trying to talk the Taliban into laying down their arms and persuading them to join the government.
But how far Western powers or Afghan officials should go to win over militants from the Taliban fold is still being debated.
On Tuesday, the Afghan government expelled two senior European diplomats accused of holding unauthorized meetings with the insurgents. Two weeks ago British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told lawmakers the Taliban could win a role in the Afghanistan's future if they renounced violence _ although he explicitly ruled out direct talks with Taliban fighters.
Opposition Conservatives accused Brown of sending mixed messages.
Responding to the newspaper report, Conservative lawmaker Liam Fox said, "We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops.
"If there are former Taliban fighters who want a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan, naturally this is welcome but we can cut no comrpomise with those who are currently killing our troops and civilians."
The Daily Telegraph said the meetings were held up to half a dozen times on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province, the southern region that has seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year.
It said the meetings took place in the presence of Afghan officials in compounds secured by the British military. The Daily Telegraph quoted its source as saying that the British spies believed the insurgents engaged in the talks to be important figures inside the Taliban.