KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Wearing an ankle-length coat and a scarf over her head, the head of UNICEF appealed Wednesday to the hard-line Taliban religious army to guarantee the safety of U.N. staff in Afghanistan and give men and women there equal access to U.N. programs.

Carol Bellamy's meeting with the Taliban's second-in-command, President Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, marked the first time the Islamic movement has held direct talks with a woman since it seized control of 85 percent of the country in 1996 and imposed its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The Taliban's harsh edicts have made U.N. efforts to rebuild the country increasingly difficult _ and dangerous. Last week, the United Nations pulled its 14 international staff members out of southern Afghanistan to protest repeated Taliban attacks on employees there.

On Saturday, the U.N. special envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned that the United Nations will ``pack up and go home'' unless the Taliban lets the world body do its job _ and that means easing restrictions on females.

Wherever the fundamentalist Taliban army reigns, it forces girls out of schools and women out of jobs. Health care for women is limited. All Muslim women _ including foreigners _ can go out in public only under the escort of a close male relative.

The U.N. children's agency especially has been affected, as many of its programs, such as building schools, concern women and children.

There was no immediate response to Bellamy's appeal, but she said the Taliban leadership was willing to talk and it remained to be seen whether the two sides can find a middle ground.

``I wanted to convey the seriousness with which the United Nations takes these issues, the issues of privileges and immunities, the issues of conditions for women and girls. I think I made my points quite strongly,'' she told a news conference after meeting with Rabbani.

Taliban and U.N. negotiators were to meet in the next two weeks to try to reach a compromise that would allow U.N. staff to stay. If they don't, the United Nations will stop everything but ``life-saving programs,'' Bellamy said.

In apparent deference to the Taliban's rules, Bellamy arrived fully covered by a long coat and a headscarf at Kabul's battered airport. She was met by three bearded officers in turbans who escorted her to a U.N.-run guest house still surrounded by sandbags.

``Our government is very optimistic ... our government doesn't have any problems with the U.N.,'' said one of the officers, Abdul Sattar Paktiss. ``We want to have good relations with the U.N. ... but we have our own culture, our own religion, our own system.''

From the airport, Bellamy went to the presidential palace, where she met in private with Rabbani, second only to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader.

Until now both have refused to meet women, declaring it offensive to pious Muslims. The reason for the change of heart was not immediately clear _ although it may have been prompted by a desire for desperately needed aid.

Kabul has been ravaged since 1992, when the Islamic insurgents threw out the pro-Moscow government and turned their guns on each other.

Tens of thousands of children in Kabul are malnourished, dying daily of diseases like polio and measles that have been eradicated or made harmless elsewhere in the world. An estimated 28,000 children make their living on the street.

While Bellamy's visit was closely watched in the West, apparently few Afghans knew who was in the black Mercedes escorted by police.

Later, Bellamy met with women in Qalacha, a suburb on the southern edge of Kabul that was heavily damaged in the war and is now the site of a U.N. water project.

In a house made of mud and straw, more than a dozen women poured out their hearts to her, pleading for education for their children, clean drinking water and small health clinics where they could go in the night if they should fall ill.

They wanted something done about the rabid dogs that roam in packs at night preying on their small children, and the stagnant pools of water infested with malaria-spreading insects. They wanted to teach, to work, to have freedom, equality and peace.

And finally they wanted someone to listen.

``You are a woman ... the men don't listen to their wives, their sisters,'' said one woman.

``You should help honestly. . .your help should not be just words written on a piece of paper,'' said another. ``It should be practical.''

The women, who were told not to give their names to allow them to speak without fear of retaliation, sat in a circle on cushions around Bellamy, the UNICEF's executive director.

She joined them on the floor, listening, asking questions and finally promising: ``We will try to work harder so that (our help) is not just words on a paper.''

``The issue of access to women . . . the gender issue is our concern,'' Bellamy added. ``We want to make certain that we can work in conditions that will allow our work to benefit all the people of Afghanistan.''