New date for intra-Afghan peace talks under discussion

US to continue with planned troop withdrawals despite deadly attacks

A young boy carries a sack of goods on his back walks past a wall depicting Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left,  and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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A new date for intra-Afghan peace talks is under discussion and the United States has heard positive reports about the formation of an inclusive Afghan government, US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad has said.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Mr Khalilzad said it would be best if intra-Afghan talks began while there is still a significant US military presence in Afghanistan and that he would soon travel to push for a de-escalation in violence and the release of prisoners.

The pace of prisoner releases and disagreements over the Afghan government's composition have helped delay intra-Afghan talks, which were to begin on March 10 under a February 29 US-Taliban agreement for the withdrawal of US troops.

FILE PHOTO: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of Afghanistan's Taliban and the U.S. in Doha, Qatar February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari/File Photo
File photo: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of Afghanistan's Taliban and the US in February. Reuters

Two attacks in Afghanistan on Tuesday have raised questions about whether the US peace effort may collapse. One attack, on a Kabul hospital's maternity ward, killed 24 people, including two babies. Another, at a funeral in eastern Afghanistan, killed 32.

Mr Khalilzad repeated the US assessment that a militant group affiliated with ISIS was responsible for both attacks. Afghan officials, however, have blamed the Taliban for the bloody hospital attack despite the militant group's denials.

"There are forces such as the ISIS that doesn't see peace in Afghanistan in its interest and are trying to increase violence to undermine the prospects for peace," Mr Khalilzad told reporters on Friday. "We are urging both sides not to fall into that trap but indeed to co-operate against terrorists including ISIS. So, we want this to happen as soon as possible when now, we're still there in a significant way."

He also blamed ISIS for an assault earlier the same day in the country's east that targeted the funeral of a pro-government warlord, killing 34 people.

ISIS "has demonstrated a pattern for favouring these types of heinous attacks against civilians and is a threat to the Afghan people and to the world," Mr Khalilzad tweeted. He did not elaborate further.

ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack, which Doctors without Borders — a Paris-based charity that operates the hospital — called "pure hell." The organisation, which also goes under its French acronym MSF, said gunmen headed straight to the maternity wards, ignoring units closer to the entrance of the medical complex, searching out the newborns and the mothers.

"They went through the rooms ... shooting women in their beds. It was methodical. Walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burnt out and windows shot through," said Frederic Bonnot, head of MSF programmes in Afghanistan. "They came to kill the mothers."

One of the attackers was just 16 years old, said Abdul Habib Faizi, the head of the hospitals' nursing department. He said it seemed the killers knew the layout of the hospital, moving floor to floor, throwing up to eight grenades as they went, storming the room where women were breast-feeding their babies and gunning them down.

The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan is based in eastern Nangarhar province and mostly targets the country's minority Shiites. In 2018, ISIS killed dozens of young students taking university entrance exams in the same Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul.

The militants have also issued past warnings to Shiites, threatening to kill them in mosques, schools and homes.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the funeral in Nangarhar while the Taliban denied involvement in either attack, calling the carnage at the maternity hospital a "vile, inhumane and an un-Islamic act."

A Taliban statement on Friday slammed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for blaming the Taliban for the Kabul attack and accused him of trying to scuttle a US-Taliban peace deal aimed at ending nearly 20 years of war.

The key provisions of the February 29 agreement - to which the Afghan government was not a party - involved a US commitment to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan to 8,600 by mid-July.

The Pentagon said on Friday that the United States is continuing its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and is expected to meet a timeline that had been agreed upon with the Taliban.

"That is still going forward. We expect to meet that within the timeline laid out under the agreement with the Taliban," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.