ISLAMABAD - The Taliban have announced a nationwide cease-fire in Afghanistan that will take effect when the three-day annual Muslim festival of Eid-al-Fitr begins Thursday, marking the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
The announcement follows a spike in attacks by the Islamist insurgent group against government forces across many Afghan provinces. The interior ministry said Monday that shortly before the Taliban’s cease-fire announcement at least 11 people were killed when a bomb blast hit a bus in the southern Zabul province. The cease-fire announcement came a day after multiple blasts outside a girls school in Kabul killed more than 60 people, mostly students.
The Taliban said Sunday its leadership has instructed all insurgent fighters “to halt all offensive operations against the enemy” across the country to enable Afghans to celebrate the festivities in a “peaceful and secure atmosphere.”
Insurgent fighters have been instructed to break the cease-fire only for self-defense and not to visit enemy areas or host Afghan security forces during the three-day Eid celebrations.
The Taliban have previously declared nationwide Eid cease-fires but resumed fighting immediately after the festivities.
There was no immediate reaction from the Afghan government, but it was expected to reciprocate as it has in the past.
Troop exit praised
In a separate statement issued hours earlier in connection with the Eid holidays, Taliban chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada praised the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
“We consider the withdrawal of forces by America and other foreign countries a good step and strongly urge that all parts of the Doha agreement be implemented,” Akhundzada said.
He was referring to the February 2020 landmark peace-building pact the United States negotiated with the insurgents in Qatar’s capital, Doha, to pull all U.S. and coalition troops from the country to close America’s longest war, now in its 20th year.
“Unfortunately, the American side has so far violated the signed agreement repeatedly and caused enormous human and material loss to civilians,” Akhundzada alleged.
The insurgent leader again urged the U.S. to deliver on its pledges and secure the release of an estimated 7,000 Taliban prisoners who remain in Afghan jails. He also demanded the removal of United Nations and U.S. sanctions on Taliban members in line with the deal.
The foreign military drawdown was supposed to be concluded by May 1, but U.S. President Joe Biden missed the deadline, citing logistical reasons and announcing last month that all U.S. troops would be out by September 11. That would be the 20th anniversary of the terrorist strikes against the U.S.
The Taliban denounced the delay and threatened to break their cease-fire with international forces that has been in place since the signing of the deal. U.S. commanders say the troop drawdown has been under way smoothly.
Washington also has alleged that the insurgent group has not lived up to its commitment to ease violence and engage in a “genuine peace process” with Afghan rivals.
The Taliban have intensified battlefield attacks since the foreign troop withdrawal started, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan government forces and capturing new territory.
The Afghan army chief said Saturday that his forces had “killed and injured 1,000" Taliban fighters in the past week.
Afghan adversaries often issue inflated casualty tolls for the other side, which are impossible to verify from independent sources.
U.S. officials have blamed the Taliban for the latest rise in violence and called on all warring parties to reduce hostilities and resume stalled peace talks, known as intra-Afghan negotiations.
The peace process, which stemmed from the U.S.-Taliban deal, started in Doha last September but has mostly been deadlocked, with the Afghan rivals accusing each other of delaying and trying to subvert the dialogue.
“We prioritize negotiations and understanding. … However, the Kabul administration has repeatedly tried to sabotage the ongoing political process through various means and continues to engage in such activity,” Akhundzada said Sunday.
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected the accusations while responding to the statement by the Taliban chief.
“If the Taliban are sincere in what they say, then they must stop killing Afghan civilians and return to the negotiation table to discuss peace,” Mohammad Ameri told VOA.
Bombing death toll soars
Meanwhile, officials and victims’ families told media that the death toll had risen to at least 63 from Saturday’s multiple blasts outside a girls school in Kabul’s western Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, mostly populated by ethnic Hazara Shiite Muslims.
More than 150 people sustained injuries, some critically wounded.
The victims were mostly schoolgirls leaving for home after finishing classes.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said attackers detonated a car bomb and two improvised explosive devices during the evening rush hour.
No one has taken responsibility for the carnage in Dasht-e-Barchi, which has experienced such incidents before, claimed by Islamic State.
Afghan officials accused the Taliban of plotting the attack on the girls school. It was one of the deadliest in Kabul in recent months. The insurgent group denied involvement, saying it condemns any violence against Afghan civilians.
In a video message released Sunday, Ghani again pointed a finger at the Taliban, saying the insurgents “should know that they will not achieve their evil goals through war.” He said the Taliban “will be crushed” by Afghan security forces.
The president declared Tuesday a national day of mourning for the victims of the Kabul attack and other recent bombings against civilians.