US military blames Taliban for spate of Afghan assassinations
The US military on Monday blamed the Taliban for a spate of assassinations of prominent Afghans, the first time Washington has directly accused the insurgent group of the killings.
The charge comes as the Afghan government and Taliban are due Tuesday to resume peace talks in Qatar, as both sides seek an end to the long-running conflict.
"The Taliban's campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must... cease for peace to succeed," Colonel Sonny Leggett, spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan said on Twitter.
The deputy governor of Kabul province, five journalists, and a prominent election activist have been among those assassinated since November.
Afghan officials blame the Taliban for the killings, but the hardline group has denied the charge, while the rival Islamic State group says its fighters were responsible for some of them.
Leggett's statement comes as the Taliban accused US forces of carrying out air strikes against insurgents in Kandahar, Nangarhar and Helmand provinces in recent days.
The Taliban said the strikes violated an agreement signed in February that paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 2021.
Leggett said the US would continue to defend Afghan forces against Taliban attacks.
The State Department said that Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran US diplomat who negotiated last year's agreement, was returning to Qatar where he would meet separately with the Taliban and Afghan government teams.
Khalilzad will seek "an immediate, significant reduction in violence and ceasefire and an agreement on a political roadmap and power-sharing as soon as possible," the State Department said.
Khalilzad will also travel to Kabul, Pakistan and Turkmenistan as he seeks to ensure broad international support for the peace process.
Violence has surged across Afghanistan, with the Taliban and government forces fighting daily across swathes of rural areas.
The Taliban carried out more than 18,000 attacks in 2020, Afghanistan's spy chief Ahmad Zia Siraj told lawmakers Monday.
Nishank Motwani of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit said the insurgents would not claim responsibility for the killings while peace talks were ongoing, but nevertheless wanted to demonstrate to its cadre "that the Taliban are who they are and have not changed".