The United States has called on Afghanistan’s warring sides to start negotiations without further delay to deter "those who seek to disrupt the peace process."
U.S. special envoy to the war-torn country Zalmay issued the call in response to Friday's attempt on the life of a prominent female member of the Afghan national team designated to negotiate peace with the Taliban insurgency.
“We condemn the attempt on @FawziaKoofi77's life...; a cowardly and criminal act by those who seek to delay and disrupt the #AfghanPeaceProcess," Khalilzad said in a series of tweets.
Afghan officials said Fawzia Koofi, a 45-year-old former parliamentarian and advocate of women’s rights, was returning to Kabul from northern Parwan province Friday evening when unknown gunmen attacked her vehicle near the capital city. She escaped without serious injury.
No one has claimed responsibility for what senior Afghan officials denounced as an assassination attempt on Koofi. The Taliban denied involvement in the attack, fueling suspicions militants linked to the Islamic State group could be behind it.
“I call on all sides who seek peace to not only condemn the attack but to accelerate the peace process and start intra-Afghan negotiations ASAP [as soon as possible],” Khalilzad stressed.
The negotiations, known as intra-Afghan talks, are a product of a deal the U.S. sealed with the Taliban in February to extricate American troops from the nearly 19-year Afghan war.
A series of high-profile unclaimed deadly attacks in and round Kabul in recent weeks have targeted religious leaders, human rights defenders and legal experts associated with the U.S.-brokered peace process, prompting concerns anti-peace forces are trying to derail the Afghan talks.
Critics say that despite its public pledges to investigate and expose perpetrators of these attacks, the Ghani government has not reported any progress so far.
Khalilzad, who negotiated and signed the pact with the Taliban, has since repeatedly urged Afghan rivals to promptly launch the long-hoped-for direct talks, warning “spoilers”, including Islamic State militants, could try to disrupt the peace effort.
But the peace talks are linked to the completion of a controversy-marred prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) after a meeting with Qatar-based Taliban leaders on Saturday indicated that peace talks may take place this week.
"UNAMA officials met the Taliban Political Commission in Doha today, expressing support for direct intra-Afghan talks starting this week. Reduced violence is required to improve atmosphere for negotiations,” said the mission in a post-meeting tweet.
On Friday, Kabul released the first 80 of a last group of 400 “hard-core” Taliban prisoners to move a step closer towards the intra-Afghan negotiations expected to take place in Doha, Qatar, where the U.S.-Taliban deal was inked. The insurgents maintain their political office in Doha.
The months-long prisoner swap has seen the release of up to 4,700 insurgents by Kabul from a Taliban list of 5,000 inmates. In return, the militants have freed 1,000 government security personnel as stipulated in the deal with the U.S.
The move, however, has prompted France to ask the Afghan government not to proceed with the release of several Taliban inmates convicted of killing French soldiers and citizens in Afghanistan.
“France is particularly concerned by the presence, among the individuals liable to be released, of several terrorists convicted of killing French citizens in Afghanistan," the French foreign ministry said on Saturday.
“It firmly opposes the liberation of individuals convicted of crimes against French nationals, in particular soldiers and humanitarian workers,” it said.
Australia also has made a similar demand earlier this month.
The Taliban has rejected allegations against its remaining prisoners and denounced recent public remarks by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the detainees are a threat to both Afghanistan and international community.
“Such irresponsible remarks on the verge of intra-Afghan negotiations show that the Kabul administration is still trying to create hurdles for the peace process and seeks to arouse global emotions through propaganda,” the insurgent group said in a statement on Saturday.