Mortar Fire Punctures Afghan President’s Speech on Peace

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Mortar Fire Punctures Afghan President’s Speech on PeaceKABUL, Afghanistan — More than two dozen mortar rounds landed in Kabul on Tuesday as the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, was addressing the nation under the trees of his palace about a cease-fire he had offered the Taliban.

Flanked by his security ministers after finishing a prayer to mark the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, Mr. Ghani braved the shells exploding nearby to once again plead for an end to the 17-year war, which is taking lives in record numbers. His ministers craned their necks to peer up at the sound of each blast.

“We announced a cease-fire, but conditioned on the fact that it would be a mutual cease-fire,” Mr. Ghani said. “This was the consensus of our people.”

Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police, said that around 9 a.m. militants had started firing from the district behind the presidential palace. Many shells landed near the palace, with some reports suggesting that two even landed inside. Others struck the diplomatic quarter, which contains Western embassies and the NATO coalition’s headquarters.

Afghan forces blocked the areas where the militants were holed up, even using helicopters to target them . Local news media reports suggested that the militants had used a truck to transport mortars to fire on different parts of the city.

Nine insurgents fired around 30 mortar rounds from two locations, according to a statement from Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, who added that Afghan forces had dealt with the threat quickly. Four of the nine insurgents were killed, he said, and the other five surrendered to Afghan forces.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State have been behind major assaults on Kabul this year.

“If they are thinking the rocket attack will keep Afghans down, they are wrong,” Mr. Ghani said.

Since a rare, overlapping cease-fire two months ago brought Afghans a brief bit of quiet, Mr. Ghani and his international partners have been working toward a second lull in the fighting around Eid al-Adha. When the Taliban assaulted a major city just 90 miles from Kabul, it put the fate of a second cease-fire in limbo. Mr. Ghani went ahead with an offer, but this time conditioned on the group’s reciprocating.

The Taliban have remained quiet on the offer. Instead, they abducted more than a hundred Afghans on the highway in the north of the country on Monday. By the end of the day, they had released most, except for 21 who were reportedly members of security or government forces.

In private, Taliban officials said they were unlikely to declare a cease-fire this time, largely because it had been difficult to contain their fighters during the last one. Many of them even traveled to cities and took part in celebrations, suggesting to the Afghan government that the insurgents are as tired of the war as officials are.

Haji Mullah Hameedi, a Taliban military commander in the south, said, “We have not received any message from the leadership about a cease-fire.”

In recent months, a strong push has been made to end the Afghan conflict by getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. American diplomats met with Taliban officials in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where the insurgents keep a political office, in the hopes of shifting their long-held condition that they would negotiate only with the Americans first.

Taliban officials have been invited to a meeting next month in Moscow to discuss an end to the war, according to The Wall Street Journal. If it goes ahead, it will be a public display of longstanding contacts between the Taliban and Russia. Coming as American officials try to build momentum around the talks in Qatar, such a move would be bound to ruffle feathers.

Senior Afghan officials said the Moscow meeting was called by the Russian Foreign Ministry. If the Taliban take a seat at the table along with representatives of countries in the region, it will be a significant development.

While the Taliban spokesman would not comment on their participation, Afghan officials said their decision on attending would probably depend on whether the Taliban would agree to formally meet with representatives of the Afghan government during the talks. The Taliban have long refused to sit down with Afghan officials in any public manner.

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