July 7, 2015 / 8:29 AM / 2 years ago

Afghan delegation to meet Taliban as twin attacks hit Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday he had sent a delegation to Pakistan to meet with representatives of the Taliban, his first acknowledgement of official talks with the insurgents fighting to topple the government in Kabul.

A member of the Afghan security forces investigates next to a destroyed vehicle at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

The tentative step toward full peace negotiations aimed at ending more than 13 years of war came hours after suspected Taliban suicide bomb attacks in the Afghan capital struck a convoy of foreign troops and a compound of the country’s intelligence agency.

The blasts killed at least one person and wounded three, according to Afghan and foreign officials.

Separately, two drone strikes this week targeting militants loyal to Islamic State in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed dozens of fighters, including the movement’s second-in-command in Afghanistan, officials said.

The commander was identified by Afghan intelligence as Gul Zaman, who had been in Achin district where Islamic State sympathizers have taken territory from rival Taliban insurgents.

Taliban and other Islamist militants have stepped up attacks on Afghan and foreign forces this year, after most coalition troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

As security has deteriorated, a handful of Afghan districts have fallen under Taliban control. The growing presence of fighters loyal to Islamic State, mostly made up of disgruntled members of the Taliban, is an added concern.

CAR BOMB

On Tuesday, a suicide car bomber slammed into a vehicle carrying foreign forces in eastern Kabul, wounding at least two people. The blast blew the vehicle into a wall, leaving behind an empty, charred hulk.

The U.S.-led military coalition said there were no fatalities, but declined to give further details.

A foreigner and a bystander were wounded in the incident, said police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi.

In the second attack, suspected Taliban fighters raided a compound used by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, Karimi added, killing one security guard and wounding another.

“Three suicide bombers were involved in the attack,” he said. “One detonated his explosives, two were shot dead by security forces.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Earlier on Tuesday, Ghani announced on Twitter that he had sent a peace delegation to Pakistan for negotiations with the Taliban.

The meeting could be a step toward starting a formal peace process with the insurgent group whose hardline Islamist government was ousted from power in Kabul by a U.S.-led military offensive in 2001.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States welcomed the talks, calling them “an important step toward advancing prospects for a credible peace.”

LONG WAY FROM PEACE

Ghani has pushed for the peace process and has encouraged closer ties with neighboring Pakistan in a bid to achieve this goal.

Many Afghans remain wary of Pakistan, however, blaming it for helping to bring the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s as well as supporting the militants after their ouster.

Ghani has warned previously that any process toward peace will likely take years, and that history shows that violence often increases along with talks as both sides seek leverage.

Although the first official acknowledgement, Tuesday’s announcement follows several rounds of unofficial contact between prominent Afghan figures and Taliban representatives.

About 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. The majority are training Afghan forces.

On a visit to Kabul on Saturday, U.S. Senator John McCain called for U.S. troops to stay longer than planned in order to promote stability.

The current schedule is for the U.S. military to draw down to an embassy presence by the end of 2016.

Writing by Jessica Donati; editing by Kay Johnson, Clarence Fernandez, Mike Collett-White and G Crosse

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