Taliban suicide bombers have killed at least 19 people in an attack on a government office as the group continues to hold peace talks with US officials in Qatar to end the 18-year-long Afghanistan war.
Taliban fighters rammed four armoured vehicles packed with explosives into a government compound in Maruf district late on Saturday, a police spokesperson in southern Kandahar province said.
“Unfortunately, 11 policemen were martyred and 27 more injured,” Qasim Afghan told the AFP news agency.
Eight election workers, who were stationed at the district centre to register voters ahead of the presidential polls in September, were also killed in the attack, said Zabiullah Sadaat, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC).
Aghanistan’s twice-delayed presidential election is now slated for September 28.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with a spokesman tweeting its fighters captured the district centre, killing 57 security forces.
On Friday, Taliban fighters killed 26 pro-government forces in an attack in northern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told The Associated Press news agency on Sunday that the latest round of talks between the United States and the Taliban, who have been at war since 2001, was “critical”.
The seventh round of peace talks that got under way in the Qatari capital on Saturday is aimed at hammering out the fine print of an agreement that will see the eventual withdrawal of over 20,000 US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The agreement is also expected to provide guarantees that Afghanistan will not again harbour armed groups to carry out attacks worldwide.
“We will continue to fight against foreign and Afghan forces until a peace deal is signed,” Reuters news agency quoted another Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, as saying.
A senior US official, who declined to be identified, said: “There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides.”
“It’s a make-or-break moment,” the official told Reuters on Saturday.
Last week, during a trip to Kabul, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was optimistic about the prospect of reaching a deal to end the protracted war by September 1.
Pompeo and the US envoy heading the negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, have said the final accord will include not only agreements with the Taliban on troops withdrawal and guarantees of a non-threatening Afghanistan, but also a pact on intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.
Until now, the Taliban has refused direct talks with the Afghan government. The group has held two separate meetings this year with a wide array of prominent Afghans from Kabul, including former President Hamid Karzai, members of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban during its five-year rule as well as members of the government.
The group has said it will meet government officials, but only as ordinary Afghans, labelling President Ashraf Ghani‘s government a US puppet and noting that the US is the final arbiter on their central issue, which is troops withdrawal.
But the accelerated pace of negotiations and the sudden announcement of a September 1 target date for an agreement could be linked to presidential polls scheduled for September 28 in Afghanistan, say analysts.
The Taliban opposes the elections and many of Ghani’s rivals want to form an interim government – something the Afghan president has rejected.
Hours before the talks were due to start on Saturday, Ghani decreed the formation of a ministry for peace to push for direct talks with the Taliban, to be headed by his top aide Abdul Salam Rahimi, Ghani’s spokesman said.