A powerful vehicle-borne bomb in an eastern Afghan city has killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 90 others, officials in Afghanistan said Friday.
The deadly violence came a day before the United States and its NATO partners officially begin withdrawing the last of their troops from the conflict-torn country.
An Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Tariq Arian, said he expected the death toll to increase. He said the late-evening attack occurred outside a crowded civilian guest house in Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province, about 70 kilometers east of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the violence, but officials quickly accused the Taliban insurgency of plotting it.
The military drawdown of about 2,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 allied troops has begun, though it was officially set to start Saturday, with withdrawal to be completed by September 11. The pullout is intended to end the nearly two-decade-long Afghan war, America’s longest.
Five-party Doha huddle
Friday’s bombing came just hours after U.S. special Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his Russian, Pakistani and Chinese counterparts met with Taliban leaders in Qatar to press them to advance stalled peace talks with Afghan rivals.
A senior Taliban leader, Sher Abbas Stanikzai, led his team at the talks in Doha, the Qatari capital.
The foreign military exit has fueled fears that Afghan violence will intensify unless the Taliban and Kabul resume what are officially known as intra-Afghan peace negotiations and reach a power-sharing deal.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said that the five-party discussions in Doha focused on the removal of insurgent leaders’ names from a U.N. sanctions list, the release of Taliban prisoners from Kabul government jails and other Afghan peace-related issues.
“All sides agreed that practical work should start on removal of the names from the blacklist,” Naeem said in a post-meeting statement.
The four-nation group also met members of the Afghan government negotiating team in Doha.
In a joint statement issued after meetings with both sides, the U.S., Russian, Pakistani and Chinese governments reiterated that the withdrawal of foreign troops should ensure a steady transition of the situation in Afghanistan.
“We stress that, during the withdrawal period, the peace process should not be disrupted, no fights or turbulence shall occur in Afghanistan, and the safety of international troops should be ensured,” it said.
Taliban urged to forgo offensive
The statement called on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence in the country, and it urged the Taliban not to pursue their “spring offensive,” referring to stepped-up insurgent attacks against Afghan security forces during the traditional summer fighting season.
The intra-Afghan talks, which started last September in Doha, stemmed from a February 2020 deal Washington signed with the Taliban that set the stage for the U.S.-led foreign troops to leave the country.
The troops were to have departed Afghanistan by May 1 in line with the U.S.-Taliban deal in exchange for cessation of insurgent attacks on foreign forces and counterterrorism assurances.
However, U.S. President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that the drawdown would start May 1, citing logistical reasons for missing the deadline.
The drawdown has begun, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday. And a NATO official confirmed to VOA that some of the 7,000 troops sent to Afghanistan as part of the multinational Operation Resolute Support had also left the country.
The Taliban denounced the deal violation and refused to participate in any Afghan peace-related meetings until all U.S. and NATO forces were out of Afghanistan.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.