By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Hamid Shalizi
ISLAMABAD/KABUL, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban had signaled they were willing to open peace talks with Kabul.
The reports raised hopes for a breakthrough in peace efforts following the withdrawal of most U.S.-led troops last year, and of a boost for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The renewed push for negotiations appeared to be driven by evolving relationships between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, which recently offered to help broker talks.
On Thursday, a senior Pakistani military official said Pakistan's army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told Ghani during a visit this week the Taliban were willing to begin negotiations as early as March.
"They have expressed their willingness and there will be progress in March. But these things are not so quick and easy," the official, who is close to the army chief, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"But there are very clear signals ... and we have communicated it to the Afghans. Now many things are with the Afghans and they are serious."
Taliban representatives including official spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying they still opposed negotiations. The group has repeatedly said it will talk to the United States but not the Kabul government.
A senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by telephone from Qatar their negotiators would hold a first round of talks with U.S. officials in Qatar on Thursday.
But U.S. officials in Washington denied the United States was holding talks with the Taliban. A White House spokeswoman said the United States remained supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban and the Afghan government engaged in talks.
A senior aide to Ghani, who declined to be identified, said the Afghan government had asked that talks be held in Beijing, a nod to China's recent efforts to help broker an end to the war.
Ghani himself has not directly commented on the possibility of talks but promised transparency.
"I will not conduct any negotiation in secret from my people," he was quoted as saying in a statement.
A later statement said Ghani met members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council on Thursday, quoting the president as saying: "Now there is a big opportunity for peace in the country."
A senior diplomat in the region said that, as well as Beijing, the cities of Islamabad, Kabul and Dubai were being considered as talks venues.
NO BREAKTHROUGH ON BATTLEFIELD
Exactly what might have pushed some Taliban towards talks was not clear, but the Afghan war is grinding on with no clear winner.
With the departure of most U.S. and other foreign troops, Afghan security forces are struggling to defeat the insurgency, while the Taliban have been unable to hold much territory.
The Taliban are also losing support within Pakistan, which has developed closer relations with Afghanistan since Ghani took power late last year.
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been marred by mistrust. Islamabad has for years been close to the Taliban, as it fretted over the influence of India in Afghanistan. But Ghani has sought to improve ties.
"Afghanistan and Pakistan relations have changed dramatically since President Ghani came to office," said Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and former U.S. State Department official.
Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak, who comes from Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the Afghan border, said Ghani's efforts had led to a commitment by Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to talk - possibly through threatening to end their use of Pakistani soil as a refuge.
"Without sanctuaries, nobody can have sustainable fighting. Those who will talk, will talk. Those who do not agree can face co-ordinated action on both sides of the border," Khattak said.
Ghani has also lobbied China, which is worried about the spread of militancy in its west, to use its ties with Pakistan to persuade it to press the Taliban to talk.
Pakistan, for its part, is pushing the Taliban to agree to talk in exchange for an Afghan promise to capture and hand over the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban are separate from the Afghan Taliban, although they share the goal of establishing an Islamist theocracy.
The Kabul diplomat warned that any talks might hinge on the Afghan Taliban's reclusive leader, not seen in public since 2001.
"The final decision is still upon Mullah (Mohammad) Omar ... The Taliban leadership is consulting him," the diplomat said. (Writing by Kay Johnson; editing by Andrew Roche)