Afghan reporter killed as govt says ready for Taliban dialogue

Emal HAIDARY
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A member of the Afghan security forces investigates the damaged vehicle that had been carrying employees of Khurshid TV when it was targeted by a bomb in Kabul on May 30

A roadside bomb killed a television journalist in Kabul on Saturday, soon after a top Afghan official appointed to lead peace talks with the Taliban said his team was ready for the long-delayed dialogue.

The blast, which targeted a minibus carrying 15 employees of private television channel Khurshid TV, was claimed by the Islamic State group, according to SITE Intelligence which monitors jihadist activity.

The attack, which the government called "heinous", claimed the lives of a reporter and a driver, and punctuated an overall reduction in violence that has followed on from a three-day ceasefire the Taliban instigated May 24.

Just hours before the blast, Afghanistan's former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has been appointed to head talks with the Taliban, said his team was positioned to start dialogue.

Abdullah credited the general lull in violence for setting the tone for discussions.

"The ceasefire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners have all paved the way for a good beginning," Abdullah said at his first press conference since taking on the role.

"The negotiating team is ready to begin the talks at any moment," he said.

However, he insisted on a fresh ceasefire during the talks.

The attack in central Kabul targeted Khurshid TV's white minibus, the interior ministry said, and caused extensive damage to its front end.

It was the second such attack targeting Khurshid employees in less than a year.

In August 2019, two passersby were killed when a "sticky bomb" -- a type of homemade explosive attached to vehicles with magnets -- struck a similar Khurshid TV van in an unclaimed attack.

Afghanistan is one of the world's deadliest places for journalists.

IS have targeted the media before. The deadliest attack came in 2018, when the group killed nine journalists from various news organisations -- including AFP's chief Afghanistan photographer Shah Marai -- in another Kabul blast.

- 'All on the same page' -

Afghanistan's truce ended Tuesday night but violence since then has stayed relatively low, though government security forces have suffered some attacks that authorities blamed on the Taliban.

The ceasefire and general drop in violence has injected hope into Afghanistan's peace process, which had earlier this month looked to be on the verge of collapse because of soaring Taliban violence after they signed a deal with the US in February.

Peace talks were initially scheduled to begin on March 10.

Momentum has also built thanks to the government's release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in recent weeks, as part of a swap that has also seen the militants free government security force captives.

Late Saturday, Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said the government had freed another 710 Talban prisoners since Friday in an ongoing process that would fulfil its promise to release 2,000 insurgents in response to the Taliban ceasefire.

US President Donald Trump's administration has made it a priority to end America's longest war and withdraw all troops by next May. US officials have pushed the Taliban and government leaders to hold peace talks.

Abdullah was appointed to lead the process after he ended his bitter political feud with President Ashraf Ghani earlier this month.

He had announced himself as a rival president after rejecting the result of the September election, which incumbent Ghani eventually won amid fraud claims.

With the end of the dispute, the Afghan government appeared unified in terms of the peace process, a member of Abdullah's negotiating team said.

"Now we all are united, all on the same page on the question of peace," Matin Bek, a senior government official, told AFP.

Saturday's attack illustrated the long road ahead to a secure Afghanistan even if the peace process is successful, with other militant groups such as IS continuing to operate in the country.

A key tenet of the US-Taliban accord is that the insurgents will not allow groups like Al-Qaeda and IS to use Afghan soil to plan attacks against the US and its allies.