BRUSSELS: NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday said the alliance was ready to support possible peace talks with the Taliban but ruled out halting military operations against the Afghan insurgency.

While the NATO-led force was willing to provide “practical assistance” for reconciliation efforts, “we should continue our military operations” against the Taliban, Rasmussen told a news conference.

Talks with the insurgents must be led by the Afghan government “but our position is if we can facilitate this process through practical assistance then why not?” said the NATO secretary general, without providing further details.

Afghan officials Thursday requested NATO’s support in clearing the way for a new peace initiative with the Taliban, including by halting military operations in areas where reconciliation talks could take place.

Asked if NATO was ready to meet Kabul’s request, Rasmussen said: “No, I think we should continue our military operations. I do believe the best way to facilitate reconciliation and reintegration is to keep up the military pressure on the Taliban.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending a NATO conference of defence and foreign ministers, said it was too early to judge the outcome of the tentative talks and played down expectations.

Clinton described the talks as a “long term” process.

The United States has set “red lines” for the reconciliation effort, demanding that former fighters renounce violence, their allegiance to Al-Qaeda and abide by the laws of Afghanistan, she said.

“On the reconciliation front, this is a much more complex effort that is just beginning,” she told a news conference.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, at the same briefing, said that the US government was fully informed about the Afghan government’s peace efforts and remained in “close consultations.”

Asked if the US administration had shifted its stance and become more open to reconciliation efforts, Gates said: “We need to be open to opportunities that arise.”

While talks with Taliban leaders were at an early stage, an effort to persuade foot soldiers in the insurgency to lay down their arms was “accelerating” as “more and more” of lower level fighters were seeking a way out, Clinton said.

President Hamid Karzai this month launched the High Council for Peace, the latest effort to persuade the Taliban and other insurgents to negotiate an end to the war which has entered its 10th year.

In Afghanistan, senior council member Mahsoom Stanikzai said NATO’s support for the effort was “essential”.

He said halting military activities where militants were holding talks, reducing civilian casualties in military operations and convincing Afghans that “NATO is not here to occupy” Afghanistan were all vital to the process.

The conflict is at its deadliest this year, with record numbers of foreign troops dying.

A senior NATO official confirmed on Wednesday that the coalition force sometimes allows safe passage for Taliban figures travelling to the capital for talks with the Afghan government.

“These are contacts that have taken place in Kabul. It would be extremely difficult for a senior Taliban member to get to Kabul without being killed or captured if ISAF were not witting, and ISAF is witting,” the official told reporters.

The comments were the latest sign that the US-led force in Afghanistan and the US administration were increasingly supportive of talks with the Taliban.

Since US President Barack Obama took office last year, the US administration has been more open to possible talks, though it has said that any settlement would require the insurgents to lay down their arms, renounce ties to Al-Qaeda and support the country’s constitution.

The insurgents have always publicly denied that they are in talks.