Rockets land near Afghan Presidential Palace

At least three rockets landed near the Afghan presidential palace on Tuesday as the country’s leader Ashraf Ghani held outdoor prayers with top officials to mark the beginning of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, it was the first rocket attack on Kabul since the Taliban launched a series of offensives to coincide with the final withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-torn country.

The early morning weekend was shattered by incoming rockets heard over the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the presidential palace and several embassies, including US missions.

In a video posted on the official palace’s Facebook page, dozens of men gathered in the gardens continue their prayers even as the rockets sparkle over their heads and explode nearby.

President Ghani, dressed in traditional Afghan clothing and a turban, does not seem kind as he continues the prayer ritual.

“The Taliban have proven that they have no will or intention for peace,” he said in a speech afterwards.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said three rockets had been fired from a pickup truck, but one failed to detonate.

“Based on our initial information, we have no deaths,” he added.

The palace was attacked last year as hundreds gathered for Ghana’s inauguration for a second term as president, prompting some to flee.

The group of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) took responsibility.

The Taliban have issued ceasefires during previous Islamic holidays and are offering breaks to Afghans who can visit family in relative safety, but no such offer was made at this time.

Symbolic attack

Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday’s attack was symbolic, intended to show the reach of militants working in Afghanistan.

“The fact that they landed so close to the presidential palace … shows that these attacks have the potential to be quite deadly,” he added.

The Taliban have taken advantage of the final stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a comprehensive campaign, capture many districts, border crossings and surround provincial cities.

The speed and ease of the Taliban offensive is a massive psychological blow to the Afghan government.

The latest attack comes a day after more than a dozen diplomatic missions in Kabul demanded an “urgent end” to the riots’ ruthless military offensive, saying it contradicts claims they want to secure a political agreement to end the conflict.

That statement followed a new round of incomplete talks in Doha over the weekend between the Afghan government and the Taliban that many hoped would start the sick peace process.

The Taliban’s offensive is in direct opposition to their claim to support a negotiated solution, the statement said.

“It has resulted in the loss of innocent Afghan lives, including through continued targeted killings, displacement of civilians, looting and burning of buildings, destruction of vital infrastructure and damage to communications networks.”

Armistice talks

For several months, the two sides have met on and off in the Qatari capital but have achieved little, with talks that seem to have lost momentum as the militants make a profit field.

A joint statement late on Sunday said they had agreed on the need to reach a “fair solution” and to meet again next week.

“We also agreed that there should be no pause in the negotiations,” Abdullah Abdullah, who oversees the Afghan government’s delegation, told AFP on Monday.

He noted, however, that neither side was currently pursuing a joint ceasefire during the talks, despite urgent calls from Afghan civil society and the international community to end the fighting.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Istanbul was ready to take over the operation of Kabul airport if its NATO ally the United States met certain conditions.

Turkey has negotiated with US defenders an offer to secure the airport, which is the key to the countries being able to maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan after the troop has been withdrawn.

Erdogan told reporters at a TV address from Nicosia in northern Cyprus that the United States, in addition to providing logistical, financial and administrative support, must “stand with us in diplomatic relations”.

>> Turkey offers help securing the Afghan airport, but has Erdogan bitten off more than he can chew?

Last week, the Taliban called Turkey’s offer to protect the airport “reprehensible.”

Over the weekend, Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada said he “strongly advocates” a political settlement – even as the hardline Islamist movement continues its offensive.

In Washington, the State Department said about 700 interpreters and their immediate family members fleeing Afghanistan will be relocated to an army base in the state of Virginia.



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