AFGHAN President Hamid Karzai confirmed that his administration has been holding unofficial talks with the Taleban ‘for quite some time’.

‘We have been talking to the Taleban as countrymen talk to countrymen, in that manner,’ Karzai told CNN’s Larry King when asked about a Washington Post report on secret high-level talks between the two sides.

‘Not as a regular official contact with the Taleban with a fixed address but rather unofficial personal contacts have been going on for quite some time,’ he said.

Last week the Washington Post said the secret talks were believed to involve the Afghan government and representatives authorised by the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taleban group based in Pakistan, and Taleban leader Mullah Omar.

The Karzai interview is being aired a day after Afghanistan’s former president Burhanuddin Rabbani was elected chairman of a new peace council, a Karzai brainchild set up to broker an end to the war with the Taleban.

‘Now that the peace council has come into existence, these talks will go on and will go on officially and more rigorously I hope,’ Karzai told King.

The Taliban have said publicly they will not enter into dialogue with the government until all 152,000 US-led occupation troops based in the country leave.

In a statement last Thursday marking the start of the war in 2001, the Taleban claimed to control 75 percent of Afghanistan and said its ‘jihad’ remained as strong as ever.

Karzai said there had been ‘no official contacts’ with any Taleban entity.

‘That hasn’t happened yet and we hope we can begin that as soon as possible,’ he said. ‘But contacts of course have been there between various elements of the Afghan government at the level of community and also at a political level.’

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top US General David Petraeus flew to Kandahar on Saturday to review a major NATO-led offensive there.

Karzai flew by NATO helicopter to the Arghanab district headquarters with US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Petraeus, cabinet ministers and the Kandahar provincial governor.

He went into talks with Afghan and US generals to be briefed on Operation Dragon Strike led by thousands of NATO and Afghan forces.

Control of Kandahar is seen as crucial to a US ‘counter-insurgency strategy’ hoping to reverse the fight against Taleban to an extent that would allow American occupation forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.

Karzai was later due to address hundreds of local elders, and listen to their opinion of the military.

Blanket security was imposed for the visit with hundreds of soldiers, police and presidential bodyguards deployed and NATO helicopters flying overhead.

Kandahar was the country’s designated capital during Taleban rule from 1996 to 2001 and has been at the centre of their increasing attacks against both local forces and NATO occupation troops.

In the sixth attack in a week, fighters again set fire on at least 29 NATO oil tankers in southwest Pakistan, as the main land route for NATO supplies was still closed for the tenth day.

Two police officers were hurt in the attack in the remote Mitri area, 180 kilometers southeast of Quetta, the capital of oil and gas rich Baluchistan province, which borders Iran.

Some 30 gunmen attacked the tankers, which were parked outside a roadside hotel and opened fire early Saturday morning, injuring two local police officials.

Nobody has so far claimed responsibility for the latest attack, which came three days after militants torched over 40 NATO oil tankers and containers in the northwestern city of Nowshera and in southwestern Quetta.

Taleban militants have launched five attacks on NATO supply vehicles in Pakistan in the past week to avenge a new wave of US drone strikes targeting Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants in the country’s northwest.

Pakistani authorities have reported 26 drone attacks since September 3 which have killed more than 140 people in the region.

The latest tanker attack came as the main land route for NATO supplies crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan at Torkham in the northwest remained closed for the tenth day running, following a US drone attack which killed three Pakistani soldiers.

The United States last Thursday apologized for the deadly strike on Pakistani soil, but Pakistan responded by saying there was ‘neither justification nor understanding’ for the strike.

‘We extend our deepest apology to Pakistan and the families of the Frontier Scouts who were killed and injured,’ US ambassador Anne Patterson said in a statement in Islamabad Wednesday.

‘Pakistan’s brave security forces are our allies in a war that threatens both Pakistan and the US,’ Patterson added.

However, foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters: ‘We believe that they are counter-productive and also a violation of our sovereignty,’ adding, ‘we hope that the US will revisit its policy.’

Meanwhile, in the Lebanon, Hezbollah called for a mass turnout to welcome Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his two-day official visit to Lebanon this week.

‘We call on you to welcome President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday at 7.30am all along the airport road,’ the group’s al-Manar television broadcast over a picture of a smiling Iranian leader.

‘Lebanon is the country of resistance – welcome to your family,’ said the voice-over to the television spot, which was signed by both Hezbollah and Amal, another Lebanese Shiite party that is allied to the ‘party of God.’

Ahmadinejad’s October 13-14 visit has been eagerly anticipated by Hezbollah, which has planned to give him a warm welcome as well as a tour of the southern border region with Israel.

However, the trip has sparked controversy in Lebanon with some members of the pro-Western parliamentary majority calling it a provocation and the United States also expressing concern.

Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are set to appear together at a rally in a stadium in Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut.

Also, according to al-Manar TV, Ahmadinejad plans to throw a rock at the direction of Israel in a symbolic gesture of defiance.

Nasrallah briefly came out of hiding last Friday to plant a tree as part of his Shiite militant party’s campaign to encourage the Lebanese to go green.

Nasrallah, who was last seen in public in July 2008, was shown on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station digging a hole and planting a tree outside his home in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The building was destroyed by air raids during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.

Nasrallah, who was accompanied by the agriculture minister for the ceremony, said in a statement it was important for him to plant the tree at that location.

He urged all Lebanese to follow his example and plant trees outside their homes.

Hezbollah has led a campaign to plant one million trees in Lebanon and Nasrallah’s tree was the millionth.

Hezbollah is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States.

During his visit, Ahmadinejad is due to meet President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

Meanwhile, Iran is ready to hold talks with six major powers over its nuclear programme ‘in late October or early November’, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said last Saturday.

‘We think late October or early November will be an appropriate date for the talks by the representatives of Iran and 5+1 countries,’ Mottaki told a news conference.

He gave no details about the venue of the talks. Western officials say they could take place in Vienna or Geneva.

Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – as well as Germany, meant to address concerns about Tehran’s uranium enrichment, stalled in October last year, leading to a toughening of international sanctions.

Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, says it needs nuclear fuel-making technology to generate electricity.

Ahmadinejad has set conditions for further talks, saying a greater variety of countries must be involved, the parties must say whether they seek friendship or hostility with Iran, and they must express a view on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.