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Afghanistan extends cease-fire with Taliban as fighters celebrate Eid with civilians

Afghans celebrate the cease-fire in the Rodat district of the province of Nangahar on Saturday.
Afghans celebrate the cease-fire in the Rodat district of the province of Nangahar on Saturday. (Parwiz/Reuters)

HERAT, Afghanistan — ­President Ashraf Ghani ordered the extension Saturday of a first-time cease-fire with Taliban insurgents, offered to provide medical treatment to injured Taliban fighters and announced that 46 Taliban prisoners had been released Friday as a sign of official goodwill.

In a solemn speech from his palace in Kabul, Ghani said that his government was ready for “comprehensive peace and talks” and that he would be willing to discuss all Taliban concerns, including “the future role of international troops” in the country. He did not say how long the extension would last.

Ghani’s dramatic announcement aimed to build on the extraordinary success of the cease-fire’s first day Friday, in which thousands of Taliban fighters poured into cities and towns across the country and joined civilians and security officials in celebrating the Eid holiday that follows Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. 

Dozens of armed Taliban militants entered the Afghan city of Ghazni on June 16 to celebrate an unprecedented ceasefire, marking the end of Ramadan. (Video: Reuters)

The president said that he was acting “to respect the public’s wishes and support their demands for peace” and that his government would continue releasing prisoners as long as it receives a positive reciprocal response from the Taliban. There was no immediate comment from the group, which has been fighting to regain power since 2002, after Taliban religious rulers were ousted by Afghan and U.S. forces.

In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for Ghani’s cease-fire extension and offer of peace talks. In Kabul, a statement from U.S. military officials echoed Ghani’s declaration that such talks must include a discussion of the role of foreign forces. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate and participate in these discussions,” the statement said.

American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, although most combat forces withdrew in 2014. The current U.S. military advisory mission, with about 13,000 troops, has been training and supporting Afghan defense forces as well as providing air combat support. The Taliban has repeatedly demanded that all foreign troops leave as a condition for talks. 

On June 9, the Taliban called a three-day ceasefire with Afghan troops for Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The surprise announcement was a first. (Video: Reuters)

Even as Ghani spoke, the positive momentum of Friday’s events was potentially undercut by a bombing in eastern Nangahar province, outside a site where Taliban and local officials were meeting to celebrate the truce. The attack left 26 people dead, according to provincial officials.

The Islamic State, which was not part of the truce, claimed responsibility for the bombing on its affiliated news website. A government defense spokesman said that explosives were hidden in a car and that an extremist Sunni militia was probably behind the bombing.

There have been no reports of Taliban attacks since the cease-fire started, however, and the momentum for peace seemed to be building. Several local Taliban leaders said they supported an extended truce, although there are still sharp divisions among its national leadership, which could split on conditions for peace talks or on a future political role for insurgents. Over the past decade, numerous efforts to launch negotiations have collapsed.

Meanwhile, for the second successive day, emotional scenes of reconciliation and celebration among gatherings of insurgents, civilians and security forces continued in dozens of locations across the country. 

Ghani declared a unilateral week-long cease-fire to begin this past week, and the Taliban agreed to honor it during the three-day Eid period that ends Sunday. The president seemed deeply moved by the outpouring of public support for the truce and said the atmosphere was “totally changed” from the past.

At an impromptu meeting beside a highway outside Kabul, Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak met with a contingent of Taliban leaders traveling from Wardak province to the capital. In a video shown on social media, Barmak embraced the leaders and said, “We are all Muslims and brothers.”

Some Taliban fighters were reported to have reached the capital, where they visited friends and relatives, and a caravan of peace activists from Helmand province, a southern desert region that has seen years of heavy fighting, was also making its way to Kabul. 

A video from a crowded outdoor gathering in Paktia province, posted on social media, showed an unidentified civilian weeping as he hugged a turbaned Taliban fighter and pleaded with him to stop the war. “Look, everyone you see here, we are all Muslims and mujahideen,” the man said, referring to Afghans who fought Soviet forces in the 1980s. “Why are you fighting? Our country is being destroyed, and we have all become beggars.”

In another video, a white-turbaned fighter was shown holding two plastic roses while a row of government soldiers posed for photos nearby, some of them also holding flowers.

Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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