June 24, 2020 / 5:43 PM / 10 days ago

Concern over intensifying Taliban attacks may hurt start of Afghan peace talks: Abdullah

KABUL/KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Public concern over an escalation in Taliban violence has made it harder to open peace negotiations with the Islamist insurgents, the head of Kabul’s negotiating team, Abdullah Abdullah, said on Wednesday.

The comments by the country’s former chief executive followed a week during which the government said hundreds of security force personnel had been killed in Taliban attacks.

Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, said the rising violence had made “the political environment very difficult” in which to begin talks with the Taliban.

“It makes the people extremely concerned,” he said in an online discussion sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace. “That puts our seriousness in pursuit of the peace process to the test.”

The Taliban deny intensifying attacks.

The insurgents, fighting to reintroduce strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster from power, signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February designed to lead to peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

Violence fell sharply following the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr last month, triggering hopes the talks could begin.

However, the past week has been alarming for Afghan officials, with more than 400 Taliban attacks nationwide killing 291 security force members, Javid Faisal, spokesman for the government’s National Security Council, said on Monday.

“The Taliban’s actions are inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace,” he said.

The main hurdle for the launch of peace talks was disagreement over the release of several hundred Taliban prisoners involved in high-profile attacks against civilians. [nL4N2DW2D8

Afghan officials say they believe the Taliban have intensified their attacks to push the government to release those prisoners and gain the upper hand in negotiations.

A senior government official said the talks, which could have started this month, likely would be delayed because of the spike in attacks.

The northeastern province of Takhar had been hit particularly hard in the last few days, with attacks on security checkpoints and an explosion at a religious school in which seven students died.

Nevertheless, peacemaking efforts were continuing. The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, met in recent days with the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Baradar in the Qatari capital Doha.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Sardar Razmal, Hamid Shalizi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Bernadette Baum

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