Rockets land near Afghan presidential palace, Taliban deny responsibility

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KABUL, July 20 (Reuters) - Rockets hit the Afghan capital on Tuesday, landing near the presidential palace during prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, but President Ashraf Ghani and many others calmly continued praying at an outdoor gathering, TV images showed.

Three rockets landed outside the palace, said interior ministry spokesperson Mirwais Stanekzai, adding that there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Taliban insurgents denied they were involved in the attack on the heavily fortified palace. Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters in a voice message the fighters were in a "state of defence" during the Eid religious holiday. Unlike some previous years, the Taliban have not officially declared a ceasefire for Eid this week.

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Mujahid did not immediately reply when asked if the Taliban's defensive stance constituted a ceasefire.

A man looks up as he reacts to the sounds of rocket explosions landing near the presidential palace, during an outdoor gathering for Eid al-Adha prayers attended by President Ashraf Ghani (front row), in the palace compound, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 20, 2021, in this still image taken from TV footage. RTA/via REUTERS

Television images showed Ghani and dozens of others kneeling for prayer as the first explosion was heard. Most continued to pray as security guards could be seen in the background hurrying toward the sound of the blasts.

Insurgents have for years fired rockets into the city every now and then, usually inflicting only minor damage and few if any casualties.

In March last year, four rockets fell on the edge of the palace compound during Ghani's inauguration as president. Islamic State insurgents claimed responsibility.

Insecurity has been growing in Afghanistan in recent weeks, largely spurred by fighting in its provinces as U.S.-led foreign troops complete their withdrawal and the Taliban launch major offensives, taking districts and border crossings.

On Monday, 15 diplomatic missions and the NATO representative in Kabul urged the Taliban to halt offensives, just hours after the insurgents and the Afghan government failed to agree on a ceasefire at talks in Doha. read more

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Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Clarence Fernandez

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