KABUL: The United States on Wednesday welcomed the three-day ceasefire proposed by the Afghan Taliban and agreed by Kabul, raising hopes that the long-delayed peace talks between the two rivals could begin next week.
The Taliban declared that the truce would start Friday, the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid ul Adha, and continue for the duration of the religious holiday.
The ceasefire offer, the second such truce proposal from the militants in just over two months, came soon after President Ashraf Ghani signalled progress in a contentious prisoner exchange that has delayed the start of peace talks.
A top US official who negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February to help withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan by May next year hailed the ceasefire offer.
"We welcome the Taliban announcement of an Eid ceasefire and the Afghan government's reciprocal announcement," Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter on Wednesday.
"Our hope is this Eid brings all Afghans together in understanding & mutual respect and one step closer to a sustainable peace."
The top US diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, also voiced hope that the two sides would move quickly to the negotiating table.
"Afghans deserve to celebrate the holiday in peace," he wrote on Twitter late Tuesday.
The Taliban proposed the ceasefire after Ghani said his government was ready for talks next week.
"To demonstrate the government's commitment to peace, the Islamic Republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners," Ghani told officials, referring to the number of insurgent inmates the government originally pledged to free under the auspices of the US-Taliban deal.
"With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban in a week's time."
Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP that Kabul would observe the ceasefire, but cautioned it did not go far enough.
"The people of Afghanistan demand a lasting ceasefire and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan," Sediqqi said.
High death toll
The Taliban had indicated last week that they too are prepared to negotiate after the Eid holidays, and on Tuesday they declared the ceasefire.
Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid ordered insurgents "to refrain from carrying out any operation against the enemy during the three days and nights of Eid al-Adha so... our countrymen would spend the Eid with confidence and joy."
But any attack "by the enemy" would be met with force, he added.
The latest truce is only the third official respite in Afghanistan's conflict since the war started in 2001, with other ceasefires in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramazan.
The truces prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the insurgents returning to the fight straight afterwards to resume near-daily attacks.
The US-Taliban deal stated that the militants and Kabul should start direct peace talks on March 10, following the completion of the prisoner swap.
But that date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the prisoner exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some of the released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield.
Highlighting the toll on civilian and military forces in the months since the deal, Ghani said more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed.
He said 775 civilians had also been killed and another 1,609 wounded since the deal.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for almost half of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020, with less than one-quarter blamed on Afghan forces.
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