Coronavirus: US calls on Afghans to set aside disputes to focus on outbreak

Zalmay Khalilzad urges feuding leaders to make progress on a stalled peace agreement with the Taliban

epa08382346 An Afghan man sells prayers strings (Tasbeh) as people celebrate the first day of Ramadan in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, 24 April 2020. Muslims around the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, by praying during the night time and abstaining from eating, drinking, and sexual acts during the period between sunrise and sunset. Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and it is believed that the revelation of the first verse in Koran was during its last 10 nights.  EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID
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The US peace envoy to Afghanistan has called on the country's feuding leaders to set their differences aside to combat the coronavirus pandemic and advance a stalled peace agreement signed with the Taliban this year.

Zalmay Khalilzad said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who each declared himself the victor in last September's election, should "put the interest of the country ahead of their own" during Ramadan, which began last week.

"The well-being of the Afghan people and the country itself depend on all parties devoting their full energies to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the shared enemy of all," Mr Khalilzad tweeted on Sunday.

He urged the government and the Taliban to carry out a prisoner exchange that was part of the US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February.

The agreement called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 government personnel held by the insurgents.

To date, Mr Ghani has released 550 detainees based on age, vulnerability to the virus and time served. The Taliban have not said whether those are among the prisoners referred to in the agreement.

The Taliban have freed 60 prisoners.

On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgent group was living up to its side of the agreement and was willing to negotiate a countrywide ceasefire.

Those talks were supposed to have begun within 10 days of the February 29 deal but are still on hold because of political bickering in Kabul.

The Taliban continue to attack security outposts, even as the US and Nato proceed with a full troop withdrawal that is set to be completed next year.

The Taliban have carried out 2,804 attacks since the agreement was signed, Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Adviser's office, said on Saturday.

However, the Taliban have not attacked US or Nato troops, who say they will continue to aid Afghan forces.

Afghanistan has, meanwhile, reported more than 1,500 coronavirus infections and 50 deaths.

The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

Afghanistan's healthcare system has been heavily degraded by decades of war and would be ill-equipped to contain a major outbreak.

Testing has been sporadic, in part because of local stigma surrounding the virus.

Shar Mohammad Ahmadi, 30, contracted the virus from a nephew who worked as a nurse at a hospital in southern Kandahar province. When Mr Ahmadi went to the hospital to be tested, "people were laughing at us", he said.

"Everyone covered their faces and were making fun of us. It was very painful."

On Friday, the US-led Nato alliance called for the Taliban to end their attacks and join peace talks, saying prisoners should be released quickly.

The Taliban have rejected an Afghan government call for a ceasefire during Ramadan, raising concerns about the peace process in the country.

"The current level of violence caused by the Taliban is not acceptable," alliance ambassadors in Nato's North Atlantic Council said.

"We welcome the establishment of an inclusive negotiating team to represent Afghanistan.

"We call on the Taliban to enter negotiations with this team without further delay, which is considered a key element of the US-Taliban agreement."