Fri, 29 May 2020

KABUL -- U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in Kabul to press the Taliban and Afghan government to start delayed talks amid an uptick in violence -- including two more deadly attacks overnight -- that threatens to unravel a landmark peace deal between Washington and the militants signed earlier this year.

President Ashraf Ghani's office on May 20 confirmed that Khalilzad arrived in Afghanistan from Qatar, where he held fresh talks with Taliban representatives.

The U.S. envoy's trip comes as 14 people were killed in attacks late on May 19 on two mosques in Afghanistan where worshippers were breaking their Ramadan fast.

The Taliban denied carrying out the killings, which came after last week's attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul in which 24 people, included newborns, were shot dead.

The Taliban also denied carrying out the maternity attack, which Washington said bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

In a message that coincided with Khalilzad's visit to Kabul, Taliban's reclusive leader Haibatullah Akhundzada said on May 20 that militants were still committed to the February 29 deal with the United States, despite stepping up violence against government forces since it was signed.

In the message, released ahead of next week's Eid al-Fitr holiday which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Akhundzada called on Washington 'not to waste' the opportunity offered by the deal to end America's longest war.

'The Islamic Emirate is committed to the agreement...and urges the other side to honor its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste,' Akhundzada said, using the name the Taliban called Afghanistan when they were in power.

'I urge American officials to not afford anyone the opportunity to obstruct, delay, and ultimately derail this internationally recognized bilateral agreement,' he added.

The Taliban has so far rejected repeated calls for a cease-fire by the Afghan government.

At least 11 people were killed and 16 were wounded in one of the mosque attacks in Charekar, the capital of the central province of Parwan, security officials told RFE/RL.

'Unknown gunmen fired on people praying inside a mosque during iftar time,' said Wahida Shahkar, spokeswoman for the governor of Parwan, referring to the meal eaten to break daytime fasting during the Islamic holy month.

The Interior Ministry blamed the attack on the insurgent Taliban. The militants denied responsibility and said Afghan security forces were to blame.

The Parwan province police chief, Haroon Mubariz Parwan, told RFE/RL that Islamic State militants are suspected of having carried out the attack.

Three other people were killed in a similar attack late on May 19 on a mosque in the southeastern Khost Province, Talib Mangal, a spokesman for the provincial governor, told RFE/RL.

Mangal said a child was also wounded in the attack in the Sabari district of Khost.

No one claimed responsibility for the Khost attack.

In the northern Takhar Province, suspected Taliban militants attacked a checkpoint late on May 19, leaving nine dead, officials said.

Six others were wounded in the incident, which took place in the province's Khawja Bahauddin district.

Elsewhere on May 19, Afghan security forces clashed with Taliban fighters around the city of Kunduz, a strategically important center that the militants have briefly captured twice in recent years.

Security forces largely repelled the Taliban offensive with the help of air support.

Assadullah Khalid, acting defense minister, said during a visit to the city that more than 50 militants and eight security force members had been killed.

The Taliban has rejected repeated calls for a cease-fire by the Afghan government. They deny any involvement in the maternity ward attack, for which Washington believes Islamic State militants were responsible.

The United States has sent special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to Qatar and Kabul to press the Taliban and the Afghan government to start stalled peace talks.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, and AFP

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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