The Taliban has announced a three-day ceasefire in Afghanistan during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha starting on Friday.
The move, announced on Tuesday, could signal the start of the long-delayed peace talks after President Ashraf Ghani signalled negotiations with the Taliban could start next week.
The Taliban proposed the ceasefire after President Ghani described progress in a contentious prisoner exchange that has thrown up numerous hurdles to talks starting.
“To demonstrate the government’s commitment to peace, the Islamic Republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” Ghani told officials, referring to the number of inmates the government originally pledged to free under the US-Taliban deal in February.
“With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban in a week’s time,” Ghani added.
The president’s spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi told the AFP news agency that Kabul would observe the ceasefire, but cautioned the temporary nature of 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,” Sediqqi said.
Kabul’s readiness to start talks comes after the Taliban last week indicated they, too, are prepared to negotiate after the Eid holidays.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid ordered the group’s fighters “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 truce is only the third official respite in Afghanistan’s conflict since the war started in 2001, with other ceasefires in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The ceasefires prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the fighters returning to the battlefields straight afterwards to resume near-daily attacks.
Under the deal signed by the US and the Taliban on February 29, all foreign forces are supposed to leave Afghanistan in the coming months in return for several security pledges from the Taliban.
The deal also stated the Taliban and the Afghan government 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, Ghani said 3,560 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 has blamed the Taliban for almost half of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020, with less than one-quarter blamed on Afghan forces.
Earlier on Tuesday, Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada slammed the US military for recent air raids against the fighters that were launched in response to the group’s attacks.
He said “frequent drone strikes, bombardments, raids and artillery attacks on unjustifiable grounds” could create obstacles in ending the US’s longest war.