Afghan government, Taliban announce breakthrough deal to pursue peace talks

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government and Taliban representatives said on Wednesday they had reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United Nations and Washington.

The agreement lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.

“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, while the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces continuing unabated.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Taliban insurgents refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.

“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America’s longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.

UN envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.

Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the insurgents balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.

“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional… so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Foreign donors make Afghan aid pledges with tougher conditions

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States pledged $600 million in civilian aid to Afghanistan next year at a key donor conference on Tuesday, but made half of it conditional on progress in U.S.-brokered peace talks underway with the Taliban.

Dozens of nations, international institutions and the European Union combined to pledge billions in aid for Afghanistan at the conference in Geneva. But many, including the United States and Germany, slapped strict conditions on future funding and some committed for just the next year – departing from four-year pledges made in the past.

Diplomats said keeping financing for Afghanistan on a tight leash could provide foreign governments with some leverage to inject a greater sense of urgency into a halting peace process.

“We’re pleased to pledge today $300 million…with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process,” U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a virtual address to the conference.

The United States has contributed roughly $800 million a year in civilian aid in recent years.

Another top donor, Germany, pledged 430 million euros ($510.88 million) in 2021 and signaled it would keep contributing until 2024 but also stressed that progress towards ending almost 20 years of war was needed.

Talks in the Qatari capital Doha between the Afghan government and Islamist Taliban insurgents began in September but have been mired in procedural wrangling as violence has resurged around the country.

But Hale said “significant progress” had recently been made, including a tentative agreement on ground rules that could allow negotiators to proceed to the next stage of forming an agenda.

As the donors conference proceeded, two explosions rocked an outdoor market in the central province of Bamyan, usually considered one of Afghanistan’s safest areas, killing at least 14 people and wounding almost 45, mostly civilians.

COVID-19 UNCERTAINTIES

During the lead-up to the quadrennial international donors conference, diplomats reckoned Afghanistan could receive 15-20% less funding than the roughly $15.2 billion pledged at the last conference in Brussels in 2016 due to uncertainties over the peace process and difficulties securing commitments from governments financially strapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Uncertainty over whether the compromises needed for peace might lead to backsliding on human and women’s rights has also made some countries wary about making long-term commitments to an Afghan administration, which needs foreign money to cover about three-quarters of its spending.

The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion)over four years on Tuesday but emphasized aid was conditional.

“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards to women and children’s rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

“Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” he added, referring to the Taliban’s previous hardline Islamist rule between 1996 and 2001.

Conference organizers have said curbing corruption was another wish on the part of countries considering donations.

Some such as Britain announced pledges covering only one year.

Britain said it would pledge $227 million in annual civilian and food aid. France pledged 88 million euros ($104.20 million) and Canada 270 million Canadian dollars ($206.66 million).

($1 = 0.8413 euros)

($1 = 1.3065 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Writing by Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

Trump cuts troop levels in Afghanistan but stops short of full withdrawal

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday, stopping short of a full withdrawal from America’s longest war.

Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday and triggered a rebuke from senior Republicans who fear it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after abruptly firing Mark Esper, confirmed the Afghan drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces from Iraq that will reduce troop levels there from 3,000 to 2,500.

“By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

Moments later, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell told reporters.

Trump is due to leave office on Jan. 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. He has launched legal challenges to vote counts in some swing states which he says were fraudulent but legal experts give him little chance of success.

The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also slammed the troop cut as a “mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” Thornberry said.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan.

Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

But the withdrawal stops short of his pledge on Oct. 7, when Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

Rick Olson, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the remaining 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing the peace process, but “it would have been better to have left them at 4,500.”

“Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it’s probably not very stable,” he said. “I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the U.S.-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do.”

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that “if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there’s no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.”

The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Iraq, four rockets fell in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Tuesday, an Iraqi military statement said. The fortified zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)

Trump may settle for partial Afghan withdrawal, despite Pentagon shakeup: sources

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new Pentagon leadership team has not yet signaled an imminent, total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, raising expectations among allies that Trump might settle for only a partial reduction this year, sources said.

Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and appointed other top Pentagon officials last week after longstanding concerns that his priorities were not being dealt with urgently enough at the Defense Department.

They included ending the 19-year-old Afghan engagement by Christmas, an ambitious target that opponents of the country’s longest war welcomed but which Trump’s critics warned could be reckless given ongoing militant violence plaguing Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has featured in a flurry of introductory calls by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, Esper’s replacement, to U.S. allies’ defense ministers and chiefs of defense, a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

“It was a part of many of them because it is of great importance to our NATO allies, our allies in the region and also just global security and protecting the American homeland,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the official, speaking after the calls with allies, suggested that Trump would not push a withdrawal faster than conditions on the ground allow.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which al Qaeda carried out. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since then.

Some U.S. military officials, citing U.S. counter-terrorism priorities in Afghanistan, have privately urged Trump against going to zero at this point and want to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

“The president has acted appropriately in this, has never said: ‘Hey, we’re going to zero. Let’s go tomorrow.’ It has always been a conditions-based effort and that effort continues,” the senior U.S. defense official said, without explicitly detailing future drawdown plans.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SEE FIGHT TO THE FINISH’

Over the past four years, predicting Trump’s policy pronouncements has not always been easy.

On Oct. 7, Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

But U.S. officials say he has yet to issue orders to carry that withdrawal out. Doing so now would be difficult for the U.S. military to execute, especially given the reliance of NATO allies on the United States for logistical support, they add.

One NATO official, who asked not to be named, said the belief was the United States could soon announce a drawdown to 2,500 to 3,000 troops by Christmas.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien already raised such a possibility, saying last month the United States would go down to 2,500 by early 2021, in comments overshadowed by Trump’s Christmas timeline.

A NATO diplomat said Miller, in his introductory call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, did not suggest a complete withdrawal but instead a reduction of troops.

The senior U.S. defense official said U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan had been carried out in an “educated way so as not to revisit the Iraq withdrawal that failed in 2011.”

Then-President Barack Obama withdrew troops against military advice, only to return them to Iraq three years later.

Regardless of what Trump might do, Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Kabul, there is growing fear of a precipitous withdrawal that could further embolden the Taliban and undercut already sputtering peace talks, sources say. Miller, in a message to the U.S. armed forces released over the weekend, echoed Trump’s desire to end America’s overseas engagements by saying “it’s time to come home.” But he did not offer a timetable and stressed the need to finish the fight against al Qaeda.

The Taliban harbored al Qaeda’s leaders and the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan said the Taliban had not fulfilled their February accord commitment to break ties with al Qaeda.

“We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” wrote Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Afghan woman shot, blinded, for getting a job

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The last thing 33-year-old Khatera saw were the three men on a motorcycle who attacked her just after she left her job at a police station in Afghanistan’s central Ghazni province, shooting at her and stabbing her with a knife in the eyes.

Waking up in hospital, everything was dark.

“I asked the doctors, why I can’t see anything? They told me that my eyes are still bandaged because of the wounds. But at that moment, I knew my eyes had been taken from me,” she said.

She and local authorities blame the attack on Taliban militants – who deny involvement – and say the assailants acted on a tip-off from her father who vehemently opposed her working outside the home.

For Khatera, the attack caused not just the loss of her sight but the loss of a dream she had battled to achieve – to have an independent career. She joined the Ghazni police as an officer in its crime branch a few months ago.

“I wish I had served in police at least a year. If this had happened to me after that, it would have been less painful. It happened too soon … I only got to work and live my dream for three months,” she told Reuters.

The attack on Khatera, who only uses one name, is indicative of a growing trend, human rights activists say, of an intense and often violent backlash against women taking jobs, especially in public roles. In Khatera’s case, being a police officer could have also angered the Taliban.

The rights activists believe a mix of Afghanistan’s conservative social norms and an emboldened Taliban gaining influence while the United States withdraws its troops from the country is driving the escalation.

The Taliban are currently negotiating in Doha, Qatar, with the Afghan government to broker a peace deal in which many expect them to formally return to power, but progress is slow and there has been an uptick in fighting and attacks on officials and prominent women around the country.

In recent months, the Taliban have said they will respect women’s rights under Sharia law but many educated women say they have doubts. The insurgent group has opposed a reform to add mother’s names to identity cards, one of the first concrete stances they have revealed on women’s rights as they engage in the peace process.

“Though the situation for Afghan women in public roles has always been perilous, the recent spike in violence across the country has made matters even worse,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan campaigner. “The great strides made on women’s rights in Afghanistan over more than a decade must not become a casualty of any peace deal with the Taliban.”

CHILDHOOD DREAM DASHED

Khatera’s dream as a child was to work outside the home and after years of trying to convince her father, to no avail, she was able to find support from her husband.

But her father, she said, did not give up on his opposition.

“Many times, as I went to duty, I saw my father following me … he started contacting the Taliban in the nearby area and asked them to prevent me from going to my job,” she said.

She said that he provided the Taliban with a copy of her ID card to prove she worked for police and that he had called her throughout the day she was attacked, asking for her location.

Ghazni’s police spokesman confirmed they believed the Taliban were behind the attack and that Khatera’s father had been taken into custody. Reuters was unable to reach him directly for comment.

A Taliban spokesman said the group was aware of the case, but that it was a family matter and they were not involved.

Khatera and her family, including five children, are now hiding out in Kabul, where she is recovering and mourning the career she lost.

She struggles to sleep, jumps when she hears a motorbike and has had to cut off contact with her extended family, including her mother, who blame her for her father’s arrest. She hopes desperately that a doctor overseas might somehow be able to partially restore her sight.

“If it is possible, I get back my eyesight, I will resume my job and serve in the police again,” she said, adding in part she needed an income to avoid destitution. “But the main reason is my passion to do a job outside the home.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi and Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

‘Death coming for me’: Gunmen cut young lives short in Kabul campus slaughter

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – As Mohammad clambered out of a second-floor window at Kabul University on Monday to escape gunmen rampaging across the campus, he was sure death was close.

Minutes earlier, the 20-year-old had been sitting in his classroom in the Afghan university’s National Legal Training Center building, waiting for a lecturer at the start of what should have been a regular Monday morning.

Then three gunmen began shooting, killing at least 35 in an attack on unarmed young people that has shocked a country where insurgent violence is common despite peace talks between Taliban militants and the U.S.-backed government.

“Sounds of screaming, gunshots and hand grenade explosions reverberated inside the building,” Mohammad, who asked to go by his first name, told Reuters by ‘phone. “Many lives and dreams were shattered.”

The brazen attack has been claimed by Islamic State, a jihadist group that is an enemy of the Taliban and not part of Afghanistan’s halting peace process.

The Taliban, which wants a share of power as U.S. troops withdraw after nearly 20 years of shoring up the government in Kabul, has denied involvement in Monday’s massacre.

That has done little to reassure a nation where trust in the Taliban – responsible for killing thousands of civilians and government troops in recent years – is at a low ebb.

The fact that young people were specifically targeted just over a week after a suicide bomber killed 24 people – most aged between 15 and 26 – at a Kabul education centre, has only heightened the sense of anger and loss.

About a hundred students gathered near Kabul University campus on Tuesday to protest against the peace talks, which are being held in Doha.

“We want to raise our voices to the world and say we shall never give up,” said M. Younus, one of the demonstrators. “No matter how many they kill, we will continue our studies.”

MORNING CALM SHATTERED

The gunmen entered the building Mohammad was in – located beside an entrance to the campus – at around 11 a.m. (0630 GMT).

Officials say they are still piecing together the sequence of events. They have yet to establish whether the attackers entered the campus by force or if arms had been stored on site to be accessed after they entered the grounds.

“With the start of gunshots I looked outside and saw well-equipped men in police force uniforms running toward our building,” said Mohammad, a third year student in the law and political science faculty.

It was not clear whether he was referring to the insurgents or security forces who engaged them in battle. In some previous militant attacks in Afghanistan, perpetrators have disguised themselves as members of the police or army.

Along with his classmates, Mohammad rushed to wedge chairs and tables in front of their classroom door to stop the attackers from entering. As the explosions and gunshots neared, the students desperately looked for a way to escape.

“Our class had windows facing the rear of the building where there are many trees; using the trees we managed to climb down,” said Mohammad, who heard screams behind him from the building he had fled.

“I saw death coming for me, I don’t know whose prayers saved me.”

FROZEN IN FEAR

A short distance away on the sprawling campus, Somaya Mohammadi, 20, had been taking notes in her Islamic Culture lecture when she looked out of the window and saw a large number of students running frantically toward the exit gate.

“One of the students shouted that suicide attackers had entered the university,” Mohammadi, a student at the Faculty of Engineering, recalled.

There was shock and panic as she and her classmates grabbed their belongings and rushed out of the building.

Mohammadi said she froze in fear.

“I was shivering and could not walk at all … I got out of the building with the help of my friends.”

Outside, there was chaos.

“Everyone was running … the university was very crowded,” said 21-year-old Niloufar Alamyar.

A third year student, Alamyar had been training to be a journalist – a difficult and dangerous job in Afghanistan. But she was not prepared for what she saw.

“I did not think I would ever see such a scene in life,” she said, adding that students were directed to flee via the south gate of the campus, away from where the attackers had entered and were exchanging heavy fire with security forces.

The battle continued for some six hours, according to officials.

LUCKY TO BE ALIVE

Mohammad, Mohammadi and Alamyar made it out alive, unharmed. Others were less fortunate.

Mustafa Jan witnessed classmates being killed.

“I saw an attacker pass by the classroom. When he returned, he fired into the classroom. He killed and wounded a number of my classmates and then went to other classes.”

Outside, as Mohammadi fled, she desperately tried to call her best friend Marzia, who did not respond. She was to meet Marzia after class to return a book she had borrowed.

“Bring it tomorrow after the class,” Marzia, who was in the final year of a public policy course, had texted the night before. The two had been friends for nine years and graduated school together.

When Marzia did not answer, Mohammadi called one of her classmates, who informed her that Marzia was dead.

“I just could not believe it,” said Mohammadi, who stumbled across a picture of Marzia on social media laying lifeless on the floor, covered in blood.

“Marzia was very talented student, and she was top of her class,” said Mohammadi, weeping. “I’ll miss her loud laugh and jokes. I still can’t believe she is no more.”

(Additional reporting by Hameed Farzad; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White)

U.S. envoy meets new Taliban chief negotiator as Afghan peace talks near

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR (Reuters) – U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held a meeting in Doha with the head of the new Taliban team due to open peace talks with a team representing the Afghan government, the Islamist insurgent group said on Tuesday.

The negotiations, the result of an agreement between Washington and the Taliban, are to begin in Doha after the release of the last half-dozen or so of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Afghan negotiators had been expected to fly from Kabul to Doha this week, but are awaiting a signal from the Afghan government that the release – to which Western governments have objected – is going ahead.

In Doha, the head of the Taliban’s political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the new head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, met with Khalilzad and Qatar’s deputy prime minister on Monday, Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem said in a statement shared on Twitter.

“Issues related to the prisoners’ release and immediate start of the intra-Afghan talks were discussed,” Naeem said.

Talks with American officials had for the last two years been led by Baradar, who signed a peace deal with Washington this year that paved the way for an international troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan negotiations.

Last week, however, Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada announced that a new, 21-member team would be headed by Haqqani and not Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, who has been left out entirely.

Three Taliban commanders based in Afghanistan told Reuters that senior fighters on the ground had in recent weeks expressed reservations about Baradar’s dominance in the talks.

However, Taliban officials told Reuters the team had been changed to give it power to take decisions on the spot.

Haqqani, the Taliban’s former shadow chief justice, also heads its powerful council of religious scholars, according to two senior Taliban officials who did not want to named.

One official said Akhunzada trusted Haqqani more than anyone else in the group: “(His) presence basically means our supreme leader himself will attend the peace talks.”

A diplomat following the peace process from Kabul told Reuters, on condition of anonymity: “Baradar might be effective, but Haqqani is senior. What we know is this was done to have a more authoritative team that can take the decision over there.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Afghan government releases 80 of final 400 Taliban prisoners

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government has begun releasing the last Taliban prisoners from a final batch of 400 who the militants want freed before they agree to start peace negotiations, a security agency spokesman said on Friday.

The government agreed on Sunday to release the 400 “hard-core” prisoners after consulting a grand assembly of elders and other community leaders, known as a Loya Jirga.

“The government … yesterday released 80 Taliban convicts out of the 400 that the Consultative Loya Jirga sanctioned for release to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire,” said Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council.

He did not say when the remaining 320 would be set free.

Disagreement over the release of the prisoners, who include some of those accused in connection with some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest attacks, has delayed negotiations for months as the United States withdraws troops under a deal signed with the Taliban in February.

President Ashraf Ghani on Monday issued a decree to release the final batch of prisoners.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to request for comment. They have previously said they would sit down for peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Qatar within a week of the release of the last of the prisoners.

The Taliban have always refused to talk to the government, dismissing it as a U.S. “puppet”.

But they agreed to power-sharing talks under the deal struck with the United States, on the withdrawal of its troops in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Afghan President signs decree to release final batch of Taliban prisoners – sources

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Monday issued a decree to release the final batch of prisoners demanded by the insurgent Taliban as a condition to move to peace talks, sources told Reuters.

“It is signed,” a presidential palace source said on Monday evening, a day after a grand assembly recommended Ghani release 400 ‘hardcore’ prisoners so that peace talks could begin in Doha.

The Taliban have said that once the prisoners are released they would start peace talks within a week after months of delays since the United States signed a troop withdrawal deal in February.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Blast kills at least 23 at cattle market in southern Afghanistan

Smoke rises from police headquarters while Afghan security forces keep watch after a suicide car bomber and gunmen attacked the provincial police headquarters in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 23 civilians were killed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and dozens were wounded when rockets hit a cattle market on Monday, Afghan government and Taliban officials said.

The warring sides blamed each other for the attack on the open-air weekly cattle market in Sangin district, where hundreds of villagers from neighboring districts had gathered to trade sheep and goats.

A spokesman for Helmand’s governor said several rockets fired by Taliban insurgents landed close to the cattle market, killing 23 civilians, including children.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman said the Afghan army fired several rounds of mortar bombs on civilian houses and the cattle market, killing dozens of villagers.

Khushakyar, who goes by a single name, said he was trying to sell a calf when the rockets hit the market. He said his two nephews were killed and his son was wounded.

“I saw around 20 bodies on the ground,” he said, adding that dozens were wounded and “livestock lay dead next to men.”

Some residents of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, said the shelling occurred during fierce clashes between Taliban militants and government security forces in residential areas surrounding the market.

There has been an uptick in violence by the Taliban against the Afghan government, even though the insurgents, fighting to reintroduce strict Islamic law after being ousted from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February designed to lead to peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

More than 500 civilians were killed and 760 others wounded because of fighting in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2020, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in late April.

(Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)