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Kabul mosque blast kills 12 including Imam as peace talk continues


KABUL: Negotiators from the Afghan government and Taliban teams met Friday to discuss speeding up stalled peace talks, officials from both sides said, as a deadly mosque blast shattered the calm of a holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan.

Despite unprecedented talks opening in September in Doha, the two warring sides have struggled to make headway, with violence escalating in Afghanistan as the United States pulls out the last of its troops.

"Today a meeting was held in Doha between the delegations of both negotiating sides," the Afghan government´s peace team tweeted.

The parties "emphasized speeding up the peace talks in Doha", it added.

In a similar statement posted to Twitter, the Taliban said "both sides agreed to continue the talks after (Eid al-Fitr)", which ends on Saturday.

A three-day ceasefire agreed by the warring sides came into force on Thursday to mark the Muslim holiday, after weeks of deadly violence.

But the calm was broken by a blast at a mosque on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, which killed 12 people including the imam leading Friday prayers.

No group has so far claimed the attack and the Taliban denied responsibility.

A spokesman for the interior ministry said the explosives were placed in the mosque ahead of the prayers.

Afghans have been cautiously enjoying the rare respite from violence, only the fourth such truce in the two decades-long conflict.

Ceasefires in the past have largely held, in what is widely thought to be an exercise by the Taliban leadership to prove it has control over the myriad factions across the country that make up the hardline movement.

– US exit from key airfield base –

As violence has soared, including a wave of targeted killings on Afghanistan´s educated class, international efforts have been made to jump start the talks — including a one day conference in Moscow in March attended by representatives on both sides, as well as Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan.

Turkey was also scheduled to hold an Afghanistan conference in late April but it was postponed indefinitely because the Taliban declined to attend.

The United States, Russia and other mediators want to see some form of transitional government take power in Afghanistan involving the Taliban, but President Ashraf Ghani has insisted leaders can only be chosen at the ballot box.

Having made enormous gains on the battleground, the Taliban appear to have little to gain from either strategy.

Washington has vowed to end America´s longest war but missed a deadline earlier this month to withdraw all of its troops, as agreed with the Taliban in return for security guarantees and a promise to launch talks with the Afghan government, who were cut out of the deal.

President Joe Biden pushed back the date to September 11 — 20 years after the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the hardline Taliban.

US and Afghan officials on Friday said Washington had pulled out completely from a major southern air base in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, just a week after US airstrikes were launched from the airfield to push back a Taliban offensive.

An Afghan army officer at Kandahar Airfield, who asked not to be named, told AFP that government forces would be left exposed by the pullout.

"It is now going to be very difficult for us to conduct operations," he said. "Our aircraft can´t fly at night so the night operations are going to be difficult."

Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and has in recent months seen intense clashes between the resurgent militants and Afghan forces.

Despite the withdrawal, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a telephone call to President Ashraf Ghani promised "steadfast support" for Afghan forces, the State Department said, adding that he condemned he recent attacks, including a series of blasts outside a girls´ school in Kabul which killed more than 50 people, mostly teenage girls.


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