Taliban leader says no ceasefire as US envoy heads to region
The Taliban's leader said Saturday the insurgents will not call a ceasefire any time soon, even as a US envoy was heading to the region for a fresh round of peace talks.
In a rare and defiant message ahead of what would be the seventh round of recent negotiations, Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada boasted foreign forces in Afghanistan are "condemned to defeat" -- but said the Islamist insurgents would continue talks with the US.
The Taliban's fight "and resistance against the occupation is nearing the stage of success, Allah willing," Akhundzada said in a message marking Eid, the upcoming festival at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The insurgents, believing they have major leverage on the military front, have rejected widespread calls for a ceasefire.
"No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad or forget our 40-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives," Akhundzada said.
Akhundzada has led the Islamist militants since his predecessor Akhtar Mansour was killed in a 2016 US drone strike.
Last year, the Taliban observed a three-day ceasefire over Eid and many Afghans -- exhausted by decades of war and violence -- had pinned their hopes on another truce this year.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had proposed a nationwide ceasefire at the start of Ramadan early last month, but the Taliban rejected the offer.
In Washington, the State Department said Zalmay Khalilzad -- the Afghan-born US diplomat tasked with trying to bring America's longest war to an end -- had on Friday left for a 17-day trip to Qatar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates.
Khalilzad will speak with the Taliban in Qatari capital Doha, where the two sides have repeatedly met, in a bid "to move the peace process forward," the State Department said.
Despite some progress, with both sides believed to have agreed on various aspects of a proposed deal, violence between the Taliban and US-backed Afghan government forces has continued unabated.
A major sticking point remains the refusal of the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani's government, which enjoys international support.
Khalilzad will start his trip in Pakistan -- the chief backer of the Taliban before the September 11, 2001 attacks -- which has used its deep ties to the militants to facilitate talks with the Taliban.
In Kabul, he will meet representatives of civil society and women's rights groups, which have been especially concerned about a future Afghanistan with the Taliban at the helm.
- Peace walk -
In a sign of Afghans' frustration with their country's seemingly unending conflict, a group of protestors have restarted a peace march that last year saw them walking across Afghanistan and into the capital Kabul.
Bismillah Watandost, a spokesman for the People's Peace Movement, told AFP on Saturday that about 30 people had started the walk late Thursday, heading from Lashkar Gah to Musa Qala in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.
"We will be marching 150 kilometres (93 miles). Some of our friends have blisters on their feet from wearing old shoes," Watandost said.
"This is our first peace march during the holy month of Ramadan, all of us are fasting."
He said the group aims to express to the Taliban the pain and suffering of Afghans.
"Even if we are intimidated with death threats, we won't care about it," Watandost said.
On Friday, former president Hamid Karzai mistakenly declared the Taliban had announced a new ceasefire after hearing an old message the insurgents had put out last year.
Karzai's announcement unleashed a brief spell of confusion across the country, with media outlets firing off tweets and breaking news reports announcing the alleged truce.
? 2019 AFP