Afghanistan 'ready' for peace dialogue with Taliban as ceasefire ends
Abdullah Abdullah, who heads a council to represent the government in negotiations, said an ongoing lull in violence triggered by a surprise ceasefire offered by the insurgents had set the tone for launching discussions.
"The announcement of the ceasefire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners have all paved the way for a good beginning," Abdullah said at his first press conference since taking on the role.
"The negotiating team is ready to begin the talks at any moment," he said.
However, he insisted on a fresh ceasefire during the talks.
The Taliban offered a rare three-day ceasefire that ended on Tuesday night to mark the Eid al-Fitr festival.
Officials have blamed the Taliban for carrying out some deadly attacks against security forces since it ended, but also acknowledged an overall fall in violence across much of the country.
The government responded by accelerating the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners.
Peace talks between the government and Taliban were scheduled to begin before March 10.
US President Donald Trump's administration has made it a priority to end America's longest war, and US officials have pushed the Taliban and government leaders to hold peace talks in a bid to pull out foreign forces.
Abdullah was appointed to lead the peace talks after he ended his bitter political feud with President Ashraf Ghani earlier this month.
He had announced himself as a rival president after he rejected the result of the September election which was won by incumbent Ghani.
The political feud and delays over the prisoner exchange helped delay the talks.
But with the end of the dispute, the Afghan government team appeared united, a member of Abdullah's negotiating team said.
"We were not on the same page, now we all are united, (we are) all on the same page on the question of peace," said Matin Bek, a senior government official.
He said the talks with Taliban could start next month.
Fourteen members of the Afghan security forces were killed in two separate attacks on Thursday in the first deadly assaults officials have blamed on the Taliban since the end of a three-day ceasefire.
The temporary truce ended on Tuesday but a lull in the country's grinding violence has largely held, raising hopes that the militants and Kabul could soon start much-delayed peace talks.
Taliban fighters attacked a checkpoint in Parwan, north of the capital, early on Thursday, said Waheeda Shahkar, spokeswoman to the provincial governor.
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"The Taliban have also suffered casualties," Shahkar told AFP, saying seven members of the Afghan forces died.
District police chief Hussain Shah said Taliban fighters set fire to the checkpoint, killing five security force personnel. Two more were shot dead.
In the western city of Farah, Taliban gunmen mounted an attack on a police post, killing seven policemen, provincial police spokesman Mohibullah Mohib told AFP.
"Eight Taliban fighters were also killed in the clash that lasted for half-an-hour," he said, adding four policemen survived the attack.