The Taliban is prepared to hold peace talks with the Afghan government next month straight after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the armed group has said, provided a continuing prisoner swap has been completed.
The conditional offer marks the first occasion a talks timeline has been floated since warring parties blew past a March 10 deadline to begin negotiations.
The development on Thursday comes amid soaring violence that has threatened to derail US-backed efforts to bring Kabul and the Taliban to the negotiating table and seek an end to Afghanistan’s nearly 19-year war.
The Taliban is “likely … ready to begin intra-Afghan negotiations immediately after Eid in case the process of the release of the prisoners is completed”, the armed group’s political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
He added that the Taliban was ready to release the remaining Afghan security force prisoners in their custody, as long as Kabul freed all Taliban inmates “as per our list already delivered” to authorities.
There was no immediate response from the Kabul government.
The prisoner-exchange issue, agreed to under a deal between the US and the Taliban, has proved a major sticking point ahead of peace talks.
The Afghan government is supposed to release up to 5,000 Taliban fighters, while the armed group has pledged to free 1,000 Afghan security forces in their custody, according to the US-Taliban agreement.
Kabul has protested that many among Taliban inmates are dangerous fighters who will return to the battlefield.
So far, Kabul has released about 4,400 Taliban captives. The armed group says it has freed 864 government inmates.
Even amid faltering progress on the prisoner exchange, violence levels have soared across Afghanistan, with the Taliban carrying out near-daily attacks on security forces.
But it was an Afghan government air attack this week that has drawn the most scrutiny after officials said it killed eight civilians.
The attack hit a group of people gathered on Wednesday in the western province of Herat to celebrate a Taliban commander’s release from prison, an official told the AFP news agency.
“An air strike was carried out during the ceremony and civilians who participated were among those killed,” said Ali Ahmad Faqir Yar, the district governor in the area where the raid took place, putting the toll at eight civilian deaths and 16 wounded.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, said photographs and witness accounts indicated that many civilians, including children, had been killed.
“We urge all sides to contain the violence, protect civilians, and show necessary restraint as the start of intra-Afghan negotiations is so close,” he said on Twitter.
The defence ministry, however, disputed both accounts and said none of those killed was civilians.
Afghan forces had carried out the attack “based on intelligence photos and videos”, the ministry said.
“The defence ministry’s investigation is ongoing, but initial information shows that no civilians were killed,” it said.
In a separate incident in the eastern province of Nangarhar on Wednesday, at least 31 Taliban fighters were killed in clashes with security forces, the defence ministry said.
The Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, is one of the holiest Muslim rites and marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
During a separate festival marking the end of Ramadan in May, the Taliban called a three-day ceasefire, marking only the second official truce in the war.