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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Afghan president extends ceasefire as Taliban respects truce

But at least 20 killed in bombing claimed by ISIS in Nangarhar province

An alleged Taliban militant greets an Afghan policeman as a group of Taliban visit a bazaar to greet people as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day ceasefire on first day of Eid al-Fitr, in Kunduz, Afghanistan, 15 June 2018. Stringer / EPA
An alleged Taliban militant greets an Afghan policeman as a group of Taliban visit a bazaar to greet people as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day ceasefire on first day of Eid al-Fitr, in Kunduz, Afghanistan, 15 June 2018. Stringer / EPA

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday extended his government's week-long ceasefire with the Taliban and called on the group to reciprocate after dozens of it fighters entered the capital unarmed to celebrate a truce for Eid Al Fitr.

Mr Ghani also offered access to family for imprisoned Taliban members and assistance for injured fighters.

The president's announcement followed unprecedented scenes across the country of soldiers and militants exchanging hugs and greetings. Saturday marked the second day of a three-day Eid ceasefire declared by the Taliban, while the government ceasefire was to have ended on Wednesday.

It was clear that both sides wanted peace, Mr Ghani said in a televised speech. Details of the ceasefire extension would be announced later, he said.

The Taliban entered Kabul through gates in the south and south-east.

Video and pictures on social media showed cheerful soldiers and Taliban hugging one another and exchanging Eid greetings in Logar province, south of Kabul, and Zabul in the south and central Maidan Wardak.

The truce was marred by a deadly suicide bombing in Jalalabad that was claimed by ISIS, which is not included in the ceasefires. Officials said at least 20 people were killed when the bomber struck at a gathering of civilians, Taliban fighters and soldiers in the capital of Nangarhar province.

No other violence was reported in the country, Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Masood Azizi said.

Governors in Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul said both sides had adhered to the ceasefire and that there had been no reports of violence for 24 hours.

Members of rights groups organised a brief meeting between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents in Helmand's capital city, Lashkargah, where the Taliban have delivered a series of blows to government forces this year.

Men and women gathered around the soldiers and Taliban fighters and urged them to keep their weapons holstered before they hugged each other.

"It was the most peaceful Eid. For the first time we felt safe. It is hard to describe the joy," said Qais Liwal, a student in Zabul.

The main square of Kunduz city, capital of the province of the same name which has witnessed series of bloody clashes, became a friendly meeting ground.

Resident Mohammad Amir said his younger brother had told him the Taliban were casually entering the city.

"I could not believe my eyes," he told Reuters. "I saw Taliban and police standing side by side and taking selfies."

Photos circulating on social media show armed Afghan police forces standing in line at the corner of the street hugging Taliban fighters one by one.

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A video showed huge crowd of people screaming and whistling as they welcomed the Taliban.

Reuters could not verify these videos.

In some districts of the eastern city of Jalalabad, civilians were offering dry fruit, traditional sweets and ice cream to Taliban militants.

Mr Ghani had said on Friday that he hoped the ceasefire would make way for a lengthier truce and called for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table instead of returning to the battlefield.

He repeated the call in his speech on Saturday, promising to discuss "all issues and demands".

The Taliban has ignored previous government calls for peace talks and insisted it would only negotiate directly with the US, which leads the Nato Resolute Support mission helping to establish security in Afghanistan. Its Eid ceasefire did not include the US-led forces.

The truce coincided with the start of the World Cup, a cricket Test match debut against India and hopes for elections later in the year and for peace that lasts longer than just a few days following months of deteriorating security, especially in the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban have been fighting US-led forces and the US-backed Afghan government since they were toppled in the US-led invasion in 2001.

Resolute Support said it was hopeful that the Taliban stick to their ceasefire "and we hope that pause leads to dialogue and progress on reconciliation".

Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah was killed on Thursday in a US-Afghan air strike in Afghanistan, hours before the ceasefire came into effect, a senior Afghan Defence Ministry official said on Friday. The killing is likely to ease tension between the United States and Pakistan.

Fazlullah was Pakistan's most-wanted militant, notorious for attacks including a 2014 school massacre that killed 132 children and the 2012 shooting of schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

His death could ease strained ties between Islamabad and Washington even as Afghanistan observes the unprecedented three-day truce with the larger Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan is considered key to persuading Afghan Taliban leaders, who Washington believes shelter on Pakistani soil, to open negotiations to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.