ISLAMABAD - A rocket attack on a crowded marketplace in Afghanistan’s volatile southern Helmand province killed at least 23 civilians and injured 15 others on Monday.
Residents reportedly accused Afghan security forces of firing the rockets in Sangin district during clashes with the Taliban.
The governor’s office in Helmand rejected the allegations and instead blamed the insurgent group for being behind the bloodshed.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousouf Ahmadi, denied the insurgent group’s involvement.
The Taliban controls or influences most of the territory in the largest Afghan province and regularly stages attacks on government forces.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office denounced the incident and urged the Taliban to quit violence in favor of peace talks.
Monday’s bombing took place a day after eight civilians were killed when a roadside bomb ripped through their vehicle in Washir district of Helmand province.
Last week, a roadside bomb in the Afghan capital, Kabul, killed two members of the national human rights commission, including a female donor coordinator.
There were no claims of responsibility for that attack, though Afghan officials blamed the Taliban for planting the bomb.
In recent days, the United Nations has repeatedly warned that the Afghan conflict is causing record levels of civilian casualties and has urged warring sides to begin long-awaited peace talks.
The United States, meanwhile, has been pressing Afghan rivals to accelerate a prisoner swap to pave the way for intra-Afghan dialogue, the next crucial steps in a peace-building agreement Washington recently signed with the Taliban to end the war.
Kabul has released around 4,000 Taliban inmates out of the promised 5,000 while the insurgents have freed more than 600 out of 1,000 Afghan security personnel in their custody.
U.S. reconciliation envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated and sealed the landmark deal in February, began on Sunday another multi-nation visit to the region, including stops in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Qatar, where the Taliban maintains its political office.
Qatar’s capital, Doha, is where the U.S.-Taliban deal was inked and the city will also be the venue for the intra-Afghan talks, which are expected to begin early next month.
"At all three locations, Ambassador Khalilzad will urge support for all Afghans to meet their remaining commitments ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, specifically reduced violence and timely prisoner releases,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement Sunday.
The State Department noted that the U.S. envoy and his delegation will also conduct meetings with Afghan officials throughout the trip remotely via video due to the challenges of travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.