KABUL: At least three rockets landed near the Afghan presidential palace on Tuesday as the country’s leader Ashraf Ghani offered outdoor prayers with top officials to mark the start of the Eid ul Azha holiday.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, it was the first rocket attack on Kabul since the Taliban launched a series of offensives to coincide with the final draw down of foreign troops from the war-wracked country.
The early morning holiday calm was shattered by incoming rockets heard across the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the presidential palace and several embassies, including the US mission.
In a video posted on the official palace Facebook page, dozens of men gathered in the gardens continue their Eid prayers even as the rockets fizz overhead and explode nearby. President Ghani, dressed in traditional Afghan clothing and a turban, appears not to flinch as he continues the prayer ritual.
"The Taliban have proved that they have no will and intention for peace," he said in a speech afterwards. Interior ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said three rockets had been fired from a pickup truck, but one failed to detonate.
"Based on our initial information, we have no casualties," he added. The palace was attacked last year as hundreds gathered for Ghani's inauguration for a second term as president, prompting some to flee.
The jihadist Islamic State group (IS) claimed responsibility. The Taliban have announced ceasefires during past Islamic holidays, offering respite to Afghans who can visit family in relative safety, but no such offer was made on this occasion.
Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday's attack was symbolic, intended to demonstrate the reach of militants operating in Afghanistan. "The fact that these landed so close to the presidential palace... show that these attacks have the potential to become quite lethal," he added.
The Taliban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a sweeping campaign, capturing scores of districts, border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.
The speed and ease of the Taliban offensive is a massive psychological blow to the Afghan government. The latest attack comes a day after more than a dozen diplomatic missions in Kabul called for "an urgent end" to the insurgents' ruthless military offensive, saying it was at odds with claims they want to secure a political deal to end the conflict.
That statement followed another round of inconclusive talks in Doha over the weekend between the Afghan government and the Taliban that many hoped would kickstart the ailing peace process.
The Taliban's offensive is in direct contradiction to their claim to support a negotiated settlement, the statement read. "It has resulted in loss of innocent Afghan lives, including through continued targeted killings, displacement of the civilian population, looting and burning of buildings, destruction of vital infrastructure, and damage to communication networks."
For months, the two sides have been meeting on and off in the Qatari capital but have achieved little, with talks appearing to have lost momentum as the militants make battlefield gains.
A joint statement late Sunday said they had agreed on the need to reach a "just solution" and to meet again next week. "We also agreed that there should be no pause in the negotiations," Abdullah Abdullah, who oversees the Afghan government's delegation, told AFP on Monday.
He noted, however, that neither side was currently pursuing a joint ceasefire during the talks, despite urgent calls from Afghan civil society and the international community to end the fighting.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Istanbul was prepared to take over running Kabul airport if its NATO ally the United States met certain conditions. Turkey has been negotiating with US defence officials over an offer to secure the airport, which is key to allowing countries to retain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal.
Erdogan told journalists in a televised address from Nicosia, in northern Cyprus, that as well as providing logistical, financial and administrative support, the US must "stand by us in diplomatic relations".
Last week, the Taliban called Turkey's offer to protect the airport "reprehensible". Over the weekend, the Taliban's supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said he "strenuously favours" a political settlement -- even as the hardline Islamist movement continues its offensives.
In Washington, the State Department said some 700 interpreters and their immediate family members who are fleeing Afghanistan will be relocated to an army base in the state of Virginia.
Meanwhile, Russia said Tuesday that the Taliban was prepared for political "compromise", even as the insurgents launch offensives against government troops to secure greater swathes of Afghanistan while US troops draw down.
The Taliban have capitalised on the withdrawal of foreign troops to capture scores of districts, border crossings, and encircle provincial capitals. Rounds of inconclusive talks appear to have lost momentum as the militants make battlefield gains.
But the Kremlin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said during a conference with former Afghan leader Hamid Karzai on Tuesday that the insurgents were prepared to consider political offers put forward by other parties to negotiations.
"Over the past 20 or so years, the bulk of the (Taliban) leadership has certainly become fed up with war and understand that there is a need to search for political solutions to the current deadlock," Kabulov said.
He added that based on the statements and actions of the insurgent group, it had shown it was "ready for a political compromise". "But it’s clear that from their viewpoint a political compromise should be decently presented to them," Kabulov added.
In recent years, Russia has sought to reach out to the Taliban and has hosted Taliban representatives in Moscow several times, most recently in July. Moscow is also watching for a potential spill over of the instability into neighbouring ex-Soviet Central Asian countries where Russia maintains military bases.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia is concerned the instability could spur terror threats and proliferate drug trafficking. Next month Russia is taking part in joint military drills in Tajikistan, which has called up thousands of reservists to help secure its shared border with Afghanistan.
In another development, Russian tanks stationed at Moscow’s base in Tajikistan have arrived at training grounds near the border with Afghanistan ahead of army drills next month, the defence ministry said Tuesday.
Russia will stage military drills from August 5 to 10 with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Harb-Maidon training ground near the border with Afghanistan where the Taliban has led a lightning offensive against government troops.
"As part of the upcoming joint tactical exercise, Russian tank crews from the 201st military base stationed in Tajikistan have covered the distance of 200 kilometres (124 miles) from the Lyaur range to the Harb-Maidon training ground near the border with Afghanistan," the defence ministry said in a statement.
Troops from the Russian base in Tajikistan – Russia’s largest outside the country’s borders -- and from the Central Military District will take part in the games. Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District, has said the troops will run drills to defeat "illegal armed units that invaded the territory of an allied country".
Separately, the defence ministry said that around 1,500 troops from Russia and Uzbekistan will take part in a joint army drill in Uzbekistan from July 30 to August 10. The military exercises will take place at the Termez training ground close to the Afghan border and will involve Russian troops from the Central Military District and aviation. The troops will practice tasks of ensuring "the territorial integrity of Central Asian states", the defence ministry said.
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