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US and Taliban close to agreement amid intensified fighting in northern Afghanistan

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — US and Taliban negotiators are in the process of reaching an agreement that would open the way to peace in Afghanistan, a senior US official said on Sunday, while Taliban fighters attacked a second city in the north of the country after attacking the strategic city of Kunduz.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplomat who oversees the negotiations, said he would travel to the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday for consultations after the conclusion of the ninth round of talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

“We are on the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit down together to negotiate an honorable and sustainable peace and a united, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies or any other country,” he said on Twitter.

The comment came as Taliban fighters even attacked Khomari in the northern province of Baghlan, a day after hundreds of fighters demonstrated to force when they swept into areas of Kunduz, a strategic city that insurgents have nearly seized twice in recent years.

Twenty Afghan security forces and five civilians were killed and at least 85 civilians wounded in Kunduz during clashes with Taliban insurgents, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

While Kunduz was quiet after clearance to flush out the rebels, Interior Ministry spokesman Nusrat Rahimi said fighters had seized positions in two areas of Bil Khamri and were battling security forces.

Rahimi said security forces killed five gunmen and arrested two during a clearing operation in Bell Khamri.

Local officials and residents said the city was closed after Taliban fighters seized positions around one of the city’s main entry points and cut off the main highway linking Kabul to the north.

“There are now clashes between the Taliban and the security forces in the city near the provincial governor compound and the police headquarters,” said Abdul Jamil, a resident of Bel Khamri who was reached by telephone.

“The city is closed and there is very little movement. People are terrified.”

Government and Taliban officials said there was also fighting in central Ghazni province and Laghman province east of the capital Kabul.

An explosion on a football field killed the mayor of the northern city of Faizabad, while a roadside bomb in the northern province of Balkh killed at least eight people, including women and children, in a car.

A second roadside bomb in the western province of Farah killed two women, four children and two policemen, local police officials said.

Local officials in Faryab province, on the country’s northwest border, said an air strike killed 12 civilians, including eight children, but the Defense Ministry denied this.

– A peaceful solution –

As the talks close in Doha, the recent fighting in Afghanistan underscores the Taliban’s intention to strike any deal from a position of strength on the battlefield.

Khalilzad did not elaborate on the deal, under which thousands of US troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees that militants will not use Afghanistan as a base for attacks abroad.

Suhail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political bureau in Doha, said the two sides were in the process of discussing the final touches on technical issues after the current rounds of talks were successfully completed.

“We are about to end the invasion and find a peaceful solution for Afghanistan,” Shahin said on Twitter.

The deal itself will not end the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, but the so-called “Afghan” peace talks, which are expected to take place in the Norwegian capital Oslo, will begin.

But it is unclear whether the Taliban will agree to speak directly to the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, which the movement considers an illegal regime imposed on the country from abroad.

Some Taliban officials have said they would agree to talks with Afghan officials only in their personal capacity and not as state representatives, and they still oppose the September 28 presidential election.

It was also unclear whether the deal would include the withdrawal of all 14,500 US troops from Afghanistan or how long it would take.

There are more than 20,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, most of them serving as part of a NATO-led mission to train and assist Afghan forces. Thousands of US troops are also taking part in a separate counter-terrorism mission to fight militant groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Suicide bombings and combat operations did not stop during the talks, and fighting in the north highlights the fragility of vast areas of the country as the Taliban seize territory more than ever since they were ousted from power in a US-led campaign in 2001.

According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians were killed, including more than 900 children, while 7,000 were injured in 2018, which saw the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries in one year.

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