Afghanistan has struck its first ceasefire with the Taliban in a remote province before a presidential election next month, the government said today, but the truce lasted only hours before clashes broke out.
With the election to be held against a backdrop of increasing violence, the government's announcement of a deal came just before Britain urged Kabul to offer a way out for the "foot soldiers" of the insurgency and bring peace to Afghanistan.
The deal in northwestern Badghis province, near the border with Turkmenistan, came amid an escalation of violence ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential poll, with attacks against civilians and death tolls for U.S. and other NATO troops at record levels.
The truce in Badghis was reached on Saturday, presidential spokesman Seyamak Herawi said, and the government wanted to make similar deals with the Taliban in other parts of the country in a bid to improve security for the election.
"As long as the ceasefire holds, the government does not have the intention to attack the Taliban (in Badghis). And the Taliban can also take part in the elections," Herawi told Reuters.
However Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said several hours later "enemies of peace and stability" -- a term often used to describe Taliban insurgents -- had ambushed police in Badghis. Two insurgents were killed and two police wounded, it said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf earlier said there was no ceasefire with the government anywhere in Afghanistan.
"The resistance against the enemy continues unabated. The government has made this up," Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. "I spoke with the mujahideen (Taliban) there about it and they denied it."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said any kind of truce arrangement was a matter between the Afghan government and "other actors" and it was very important credible elections are held.
"If there is any such arrangement that would allow this to happen, then that would be a good thing," Appathurai said by telephone from Brussels.
Violence this year had already reached its worst levels since the Taliban's austere Islamist government was ousted in 2001 and escalated further after thousands of U.S. Marines and British soldiers began major offensives in southern Helmand this month.
Attacks have been less frequent in remote Badghis compared with Taliban strongholds in the south and the east.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British leaders have spoken this year about the need to work with "moderate" Taliban elements and former Taliban officials have been trying to mediate between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the insurgents since late 2008.
But the Taliban have repeatedly rejected talks, saying they would keep fighting until all foreign troops left Afghanistan.
Miliband stressed "reintegration" in a speech to NATO ambassadors in Brussels and said Afghanistan needed an inclusive, long-term political settlement to separate "foot soldiers" from those who are committed to violent jihad (holy war) globally.
"Essentially this means a clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming their land, or a role for some of them within the legitimate security forces," Miliband said.
He poll offered the chance for Afghanistan to take on more military and political responsibility and to root out corruption.
July has become the deadliest month of the war for both U.S. and British troops, the high tolls raising questions in London about whether British troops are adequately equipped, how long they should stay or whether they should be in Afghanistan at all.
The Helmand offensive is the first major operation under Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its militant allies and stabilise Afghanistan. Washington is sending thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan under the new strategy.
The Badghis truce was arranged after mediation between Taliban leaders and tribal elders, Herawi said. He said the Taliban had agreed not to attack election candidates in the province and to allow them to set up campaign offices.
Herawi said polling centres would be secured by government forces and the Taliban had also agreed not to target reconstruction projects in Badghis.
The U.S. and British embassies in Kabul both said they were aware of reports of the deal but had no immediate comment.