Afghan forces launched a lightning operation in northern Afghanistan on Monday, rescuing 149 people, including women and children, abducted by the Taliban. Operations to free another 21 were still underway.
The Afghan security operation was launched hours after the Taliban ambushed a convoy of buses en route to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the northern province of Kunduz, according to local officials and a bus union representative.
The incident came despite President Ashraf Ghani’s call on Sunday for a ceasefire with the Taliban during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha later this week.
At least seven Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting, according to Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
The 21 other passengers who were still in captivity are believed to be Afghan government or security services employees.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed the ambush in Kunduz and said the group planned to release civilians but would keep Afghan security forces in custody.
US welcomes truce offer
The latest bus ambush comes as the Afghan government issued a truce offer on Afghanistan’s independence day Sunday for the Eid al-Adha festival.
President Ghani said his office had cleared “all obstacles” to peace with the announcement following consultations with religious scholars, political parties and civil society groups.
The offer was welcomed by the US, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on the Taliban to participate.
The Taliban has not officially responded to the offer, but in a Twitter post Sunday night, the militant group repeated its call for the US to leave Afghanistan.
Sec Pompeo expresses a US greed. Taliban threw a piece of meat and announced ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr to show the world how Afghanistan would look without war. Now US dreams about the entire shoulder! It’s about time for US occupation to exit Afghanistan with no more delay,” said the Taliban.
‘We should not be begging for peace’
The ceasefire call followed an extraordinarily violent week in Afghanistan that saw the Taliban storm the strategic eastern city of Ghazni — just a two hour drive from Kabul — and press the fight against security forces across the country, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Critics said the truce offer belied the desperation of the Afghan government following security failures in Ghazni despite warnings from residents about a massive Taliban advance.
The Taliban were eventually ousted from Ghazni, but the city and its infrastructure has been leveled by intense fighting.
Ghani’s announcement was also welcomed by neighbouring Pakistan, which has long been accused of fostering links with the Taliban’s leadership and providing sanctuary to its fighters.
However, the offer drew mixed responses among Afghans, with some slamming the idea of welcoming Taliban fighters back into their cities as they had during the three-day ceasefire over the Eid holiday in June.
“We should not be begging for peace with the Taliban. I promise, if I see any Taliban eating ice cream in Kabul, I will hit him with a stone,” wrote Facebook user Rahman Ahmadi.
An act of desperation
Ghani’s truce offer for the Eid al-Adha festival followed an earlier one in June during the Eid al-Fitr festival. The previous truce sawextraordinary scenes of Taliban militants hugging and taking selfies with Afghan security officials across the country.
The June ceasefire — the first such truce in the country since the 2001 US invasion — spurred hopes that a new path was opening for possible peace talks in the country to end the nearly 17-year-old war.
But violence has surged in the weeks since as talk of a new ceasefire continued.
The days-long fight for Ghazni, which concluded last Wednesday, killed hundreds and saw Taliban fighters ransack the provincial capital, torching buildings and destroying infrastructure.
That battle coincided with blistering attacks on government installations across the country. Analysts have suggested the Taliban were seeking to demonstrate strength ahead of any possible talks.
In his Sunday address, Ghani did not mention any cease in fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group, which has expanded since it first emerged in the region in 2014 and was not included in the June ceasefire, or any of the other militant groups plaguing Afghanistan.
Kabul-based analyst Haroon Mir said the move might be perceived as an act of desperation by the government following mounting battlefield pressure from insurgents.
“I doubt the Taliban would reciprocate given their past stance and recent gains on the ground,” said Mir.
Afghan security forces, beset by killings, desertions and low morale, have taken staggering losses since US-led NATO combat forces pulled out at the end of 2014.
But it is ordinary Afghans who have borne the brunt of the violence in the grinding conflict, especially in Kabul, which the United Nations has said is the deadliest place for civilians in the country.
Washington has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Taliban, saying negotiations must be Afghan-led.
Last month, however, Taliban representatives met US officials for talks in Qatar, though little is known about the details of the meeting
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)