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World Taliban declare start of spring offensive amid talks with U.S.

A U.S. Marine Corps carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, on April 11, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

The Associated Press

The Taliban announced on Friday the start of their spring offensive despite talking peace with the United States and ahead of a significant gathering of Afghans meant to discuss resolutions to the protracted war and an eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country.

The insurgents released a lengthy missive in five languages, including English, saying the fighting would continue while foreign forces remain in Afghanistan.

In a series of tweets later on Friday, U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad condemned the announcement as “reckless” and “irresponsible.”

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“Through this announcement, Taliban leaders demonstrate their indifference to the demands of Afghans across the country,” he tweeted.

The announcement is something the militant group does every year, even though Taliban attacks never really ceased during the harsh winter months. The insurgents carry out daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces and NATO troops, and inflicting staggering casualties, including among civilians. Most recently, a Taliban attack near the main U.S. airbase in Afghanistan killed three Marines on Monday.

The Taliban now hold sway over half the country after a relentless 17-year war, the United States’ longest.

Mr. Khalilzad, however, tweeted: “many Talibs including fighters and some leaders oppose this announcement,” although he didn’t explain how he knew this.

Friday’s announcement instructs the Taliban mujahedeen, or holy warriors, to “launch jihadi operations with sincerity and pure intentions,” strictly abiding by the Taliban command structure. It also urges fighters to avoid civilian casualties.

The United Nations’ annual report earlier this year said civilian deaths hit a record high last year, blaming the insurgents and other militants, such as the Islamic State group, though it also noted an uptick in civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids, most often in aid of Afghan troops on the ground.

Still, preparations are under way for Afghan-to-Afghan talks starting next week in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office.

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In Kabul, the Afghan High Peace Council, a government body created years ago to talk peace with anti-government forces, condemned the Taliban announcement, saying it brought into question the insurgents sincerity in seeking a peaceful end to the war.

Atta-u-Rahman Saleim, a council deputy, told the Associated Press over the phone that it undermines the credibility of the Taliban.

“They are insisting on war,” he said. “We can see this every day.”

Mr. Khalilzad, who has escalated efforts to find a peaceful end to the war since his appointment last year, has been urging the Taliban to accept a ceasefire and hold talks directly with the Kabul government, something the insurgents refuse to do. The Taliban, who see the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet, say they will talk to Kabul officials at the coming Qatar meeting only as “ordinary Afghans” and not as government representatives.

“The killing of Afghans must stop,” Mr. Khalilzad tweeted. “All sides must end unnecessary violence, and instead engage in intra-Afghan dialogue, which leads to negotiations on a political settlement and a road map to end the war this year.”

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Friday that the insurgents banned the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization from operating in territory under their control. This is the second time in the past year the insurgents have barred Red Cross workers.

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Robin Waubo, a Red Cross official in Kabul, said the organization was putting its activities “on hold” until its representatives can meet with the Taliban to resolve the issue.

“We are going to have a dialogue with them in order to try and begin our work again,” Mr. Waubo said, warning that thousands of displaced people will be adversely affected by the Taliban decision.

“It is a big issue for us because we have to stop working,” he said.

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