Sat, 31 Jul 2021

Officials say that seven civilians have been killed and six others wounded in a roadside bomb attack in northern Afghanistan.

The attack came despite a reduction in overall violence across much of Afghanistan since last-week's cease-fire between the Taliban and the government.

The explosion struck a small truck carrying a group of laborers late on Monday in the volatile district of Khan Abad, in the northern Kunduz Province.

No group has claimed responsibility, but Kunduz provincial spokesman Esmatullah Muradi said he suspected the Taliban.

'The Taliban plant roadside bombs to target security forces, but their bombs usually kill civilians,' Muradi said.

Two of the six wounded in the attack were in critical condition, said district chief Hayatullah Amiri.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had welcomed the Taliban cease-fire declared to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr and authorities responded by announcing around 2,000 Taliban prisoners would be released in a 'goodwill gesture' with a view to open peace talks.

Afghanistan's former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has been appointed to lead the talks, said his team was ready to begin negotiations 'at any moment.'

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February aimed at ending the longest war in U.S. history. The deal lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for security commitments from the Taliban.

The deal, of which the Afghan government was not a signatory, also stipulates that Kabul nevertheless must free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants are to release 1,000 captives.

As of last week, Afghan authorities had released 1,100 Taliban militants since early April; the militant group had freed 245 members of security forces, civil servants, and other people it had been holding.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been pushing for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin, held a video conference with top officials in Kabul including Ghani and his top deputy, Amrullah Saleh.

Ghani's office said in a statement that Saleh highlighted the importance of the ongoing drop in violence and the need for the cease-fire to hold.

The two sides discussed the future steps needed to bring peace in Afghanistan, the statement said, adding that the release of Taliban prisoners and the venue for the intra-Afghan peace talks were also tackled.

U.S. Support

Pompeo reiterated U.S. support for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, it said.

In Washington, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said he is optimistic that the Taliban and Afghan government will begin peace talks, adding that U.S. troops could be pulled out ahead of schedule if all goes well.

Khalilzad said on June 1 that there's been a lot of progress as the Afghan government speeds up the release of prisoners.

"We are in a good place,' Khalilzad said, adding that levels of violence in Afghanistan have remained relatively low since the Eid al-Fitr cease-fire. 'We are optimistic that finally we're moving forward to the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations.'

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Khalilzad did not set a date and cautioned that 'still more needs to be done' on freeing prisoners.

Under the February agreement, the United States will pull troops out of Afghanistan by mid-2021 in exchange for the insurgents' commitments to keep out Al-Qaeda and other foreign extremists.

U.S. officials have said that troops already are returning home and the withdrawal is ahead of schedule.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime, saying it had provided a safe haven to Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Khalilzad downplayed a recent report to the UN Security Council that said Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 'remain close' and were in regular consultations over the negotiations with the United States.

'The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,' independent UN sanctions monitors said in the report.

It said the ties stem from friendship, intermarriage, shared struggle, and ideological sympathy.

Khalilzad said it largely covered a period before the February deal.

'There is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely,' he said of Taliban ties with Al-Qaeda, adding that if the Taliban fails to keep its promises, Washington could reconsider its own.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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