United Nations chief welcomes ceasefire in Afghanistan ahead of Eid

Cheryl Sanders
August 1, 2020

The bombing came hours before a three-day ceasefire was to begin in the country for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officials said.

Disagreements over a prisoner exchange and the unrest have delayed peace talks between an Afghan government-mandated committee and the Taliban, as envisaged in an agreement signed between the United States and the militant group in Doha in February.

In a speech, Mr. Ghani said another 500 prisoners will be released in a bid to "accelerate the peace talks".

There were no immediate reports of major fighting across the country. Kabul authorities have already freed 4,600 of those prisoners but are hesitating over the final 400, deeming them too risky.

Eventually, however, the Afghan government began the prisoner release process - not without further delays and contention - and talks do appear to be the next step. The Taliban refused to sit for negotiations unless all of their 5,000 prisoners were released. But that date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the prisoner exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some of the released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield.

However the two Taliban and two diplomatic sources said the insurgent group was insistent on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on the list.

USA special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who led negotiations with the Taliban, is now visiting regional players including Ghani in Kabul to push for a ceasefire extension.

Of the 400 prisoners left, around 200 are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years and including a huge 2017 blast targeting the German Embassy in Kabul.

Highlighting the recent toll, Ghani this week said more than 3,500 Afghan troops and almost 800 civilians had been killed since the deal was signed. "There were no Taliban attacks against Coalition forces, though there were several attacks against ANDSF sites in provincial capitals".

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for the bulk of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020. "We have suffered from the conflict for the last 40 years", Sharif Ahmad, a shopkeeper, said after offering Eid prayers. CSTC-A said this has been "perhaps the most complex and challenging period in the last two decades" for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).

Two Taliban sources and one former senior Afghan official said senior members of the militant Haqqani Network, which has ties to the Taliban, are also among the group.

He said other ideas put forward were releasing the prisoners without publicly announcing it, agreeing to release prisoners shortly after negotiations start, or persuading the Taliban to compromise on the most contentious 200 prisoners.

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