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Taliban Answers Afghanistan's Cease-Fire Offer With Ambush, Abductions

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses a news conference last month at the presidential palace in the capital, Kabul, where the government was hosting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Rahmat Gul
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses a news conference last month at the presidential palace in the capital, Kabul, where the government was hosting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

President Ashraf Ghani marked the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan's independence on Sunday by offering some hope for a "long lasting and real peace." The proposal: Beginning Monday, Afghanistan would honor a three-month truce with the Taliban to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, "provided that the Taliban reciprocate."

"We urge them to get ready for peace-talks based on Islamic values and principles," Ghani said in a series of tweets Sunday. "The Afghan government has removed all obstacles for a long lasting peace through these unprecedented steps."

But by Monday, that offer appeared to have been poorly received.

Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy of three buses in Kunduz province, abducting the nearly 200 passengers aboard — most of whom were civilians traveling to the capital, Kabul, for the holiday, according to Reuters.

Citing government officials, The Associated Press reports that Afghan forces had rescued 149 of the hostages within hours, carrying out a raid that remained underway as of Monday afternoon local time. The wire service says 21 hostages were still in the hands of the Taliban, which lost at least seven of its own fighters in the operation.

Despite the ambush and the bloodshed that followed, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid maintains that the group is still mulling Ghani's offer of a cease-fire. So far, he says, the Taliban has neither accepted nor rejected the proposal.

"If we made any decision," he told NPR on Monday, "we would let media know."

The confusion comes just two months after a similarly messy exchange between Ghani and the Taliban, in which the Afghan president extended a unilateral cease-fire on the occasion of another holiday, Eid al-Fitr. After some deliberation, the Taliban accepted a three-day truce — but fighting soon resumed.

That includes the militant group's surprise attack just over a week ago in the city of Ghazni. The assault left some 100 members of the Afghan security forces dead, along with at least 30 civilians and another roughly 140 Taliban fighters. Citing "unverified numbers," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the civilian death toll could actually be as high as 250.

The days-long battle eventually ended in defeat for the Taliban, but the group also carried out significant assaults on several Afghan military bases elsewhere in the country, killing scores of soldiers and police officers in the process.

Still, the Trump administration, which has thousands of troops still stationed in the country, has expressed hope for the prospects of peace between the government it supports and the militant group ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The last ceasefire in Afghanistan revealed the deep desire of the Afghan people to end the conflict, and we hope another ceasefire will move the country closer to sustainable security. The United States and our international partners support this initiative by the Afghan people and the Afghan government, and we call on the Taliban to participate," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement released Sunday.

"It is our hope, and that of the international community, that the Afghan people may celebrate Eid al-Adha this year in peace, free from fear."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.