US hails Afghan ceasefire as hopes for peace talks rise

The Taliban proposed the ceasefire after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his government was ready for talks next week

FILE - In this March 9, 2020 file photo, Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad attends the inauguration ceremony for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. Khalilzad is heading back to the region in efforts to jump-start negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The trip comes as the Taliban offered a conciliatory message ahead of major Muslim holiday. The Taliban leader says they do not seek to monopolize power in a future political makeup of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Senior US officials welcomed a three-day ceasefire proposed by the Taliban and agreed by the Afghan government, raising hopes that long-delayed peace talks between the foes could begin next week.

The Taliban declared that the truce would start on Friday, the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid Al Adha, and continue for the duration of the religious holiday.

The ceasefire offer, the second such truce proposal from the militants in just over two months, came shortly after President Ashraf Ghani signalled progress in a contentious prisoner exchange that has delayed the start of peace talks.

A US official who negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February to help withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan by May next year hailed the ceasefire offer.

"We welcome the Taliban announcement of an Eid ceasefire and the Afghan government's reciprocal announcement," Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter on Wednesday.

"Our hope is this Eid brings all Afghans together in understanding [and] mutual respect and one step closer to a sustainable peace."

The senior US diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, also voiced hope that the two sides would move quickly to the negotiating table.

"Afghans deserve to celebrate the holiday in peace," he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

The Taliban proposed the ceasefire after Mr Ghani said his government was ready for talks next week.

"To demonstrate the government's commitment to peace, the Islamic Republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners," Mr Ghani told officials, referring to the number of insurgent inmates the government originally pledged to free under the US-Taliban deal.

"With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban in a week's time."

Mr Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told AFP that Kabul would observe the ceasefire, but said it did not go far enough.

"The people of Afghanistan demand a lasting ceasefire and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan," Mr Sediqqi said.

The Taliban indicated last week that they, too, were prepared to negotiate after the Eid holidays, and on Tuesday they declared the ceasefire.

Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid ordered insurgents "to refrain from carrying out any operation against the enemy during the three days and nights of Eid Al Adha so... our countrymen would spend the Eid with confidence and joy."

But any attack "by the enemy" would be met with force, he added.

The latest truce is only the third official respite in Afghanistan's conflict since the war started in 2001, with ceasefires in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

The truces prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the insurgents returning to the fight straight afterwards to resume near-daily attacks.

The US-Taliban deal stated that the militants and Kabul should start direct peace talks on March 10, following the completion of the prisoner swap.

But that date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the prisoner exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some of the released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield.

Highlighting the toll on civilian and military forces in the months since the deal, Mr Ghani said more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed.

He said 775 civilians had also been killed and another 1,609 wounded since the deal.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan blamed the Taliban for almost half of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020, with less than one-quarter blamed on Afghan forces.