Senior figures in the Taliban leadership met the United Nations representative for Afghanistan secretly to discuss the possibility of laying down their arms, it emerged on Thursday night. As Afghanistan and world powers fleshed out plans to begin a process of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the insurgents, it was revealed that regional commanders from the Talibans top leadership council met Kai Eide, the UN special representative, in Dubai on January 8. A UN official revealed details of the meeting to Reuters news agency in London in the closing stages of the international conference on Afghanistan. The official said it was the first time such talks had taken place with members of the Talibans top leadership council, which US officials say is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. They requested a meeting to talk about talks. They want protection, to be able to come out in public. They dont want to vanish into places like Bagram, the official said, referring to a detention centre at the main US military base in Afghanistan. A British official said news of the meeting had taken the UK by surprise but added: We need many more details. The Quetta shura is a complex group and there are some elements you could imagine reconciling with and some you cant. But a plan by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, to talk to the Taliban received its first support on Thursday, when Saudi Arabia said it could act as a mediator as long as insurgents ended all ties with al-Qaeda. At the London conference, Mr Karzais government said it would invite members of the Taliban to reconciliation talks at a grand jirga to be held in the next few weeks. However, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabias foreign minister, said in London on Thursday: We cut relations [with al-Qaeda] when they [the Taliban] gave sanctuary to [Osama] bin Laden. We dont talk to them. Unless the Taliban give up the issue of sanctuary, I dont think negotiations with them will be possible or feasible. With some of the 60 governments attending the conference pledging 100m ($140m, 87m) to a fund aimed at encouraging Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and take up jobs in agriculture, Mr Karzai called on Afghanistans neighbours to back the reconciliation process. But the Taliban has found its readiest supporters in areas that feel alienated from the government and it is far from clear that the promise of jobs or money would be enough to defuse their grievances. Also, one senior official from a European government commented that the conference was taking place less than two months after the Afghan elections but that Mr Karzai had not been able to push through critical reforms in the fight against corruption. The west had hoped Mr Karzais government would agree on Thursday to set up an independent monitoring and evaluation mission on a permanent basis to combat corruption. But the conferences final communiqu said the body would be set up only on an ad hoc basis. The final communiqu was also vague on the timetable under which the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) would take the lead for managing security across the country. It stated only that Nato expected to see a number of provinces transitioning to ANSF lead . . . by late 2010/early 2011.(FT)