KABUL, Afghanistan: Mortar shells slammed into a residential area of Afghanistan’s capital and killed eight people Saturday (Sunday in Manila), hours before outgoing United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held what are likely his last meetings with the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators trying to hammer out a peace deal.
The attack in Kabul, claimed by Islamic State militants, also wounded 31 people.
The assault came as peace talks were underway in Qatar, where Pompeo told Afghan government negotiators that the US will “sit on the side and help where we can” in the negotiations with Taliban militants. Meanwhile, the US military announced a sudden visit to the Mideast by long-range, nuclear-capable B-52H bombers, underlining America’s continuing presence in the region.
Two Taliban officials told The Associated Press that the warring sides have found common ground on which to move forward the stalled talks. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to journalists, did not elaborate.
In Kabul, at least one of the 23 mortar rounds hit inside the Iranian Embassy compound. No one was wounded, but it damaged the main building, the embassy said. At least 31 people were hurt elsewhere in the city, according to the Interior Ministry.
The local Islamic State affiliate issued a statement claiming the attack that targeted the so-called Green Zone in Kabul, which houses foreign embassies, the presidential palace and Afghan military compounds, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
In Doha, Pompeo met with the co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace agreement with Washington in February ahead of the so-called intra-Afghan talks. Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted that further prisoner releases were discussed in the meeting, in addition to those that the two sides committed to ahead of peace talks under the US deal.
Naeem said the Taliban also repeated their demand that their leaders be removed from the United Nations sanctions list.
For most Afghans, the overriding concern has been a sharp rise in violence this year and a surge of attacks by the Taliban against Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces since the start of peace talks in September.
The announcement this week that the United States will accelerate its planned troop withdrawal has lent greater urgency to the intra-Afghan negotiations and to the calls for a reduction in violence. Washington announced it would withdraw another estimated 2,500 troops before the middle of January, leaving about 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of America’s longest war.
The Taliban have, however, held to their promise not to attack US and NATO troops. The US, alongside coalition forces, invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of Al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks, masterminded by Osama bin Laden, then a guest of the Taliban government.