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Taliban says ready to counter Afghan forces after deadly carnage

Injured mourners are taken to hospital after a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in eastern Afghanistan
Injured mourners are taken to hospital after a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in eastern Afghanistan NOORULLAH SHIRZADA AFP
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Kabul (AFP)

The Taliban warned Wednesday it was ready to fight back after Afghan forces were ordered to resume strikes in response to a series of deadly attacks, further unravelling a fragile peace process.

A brazen daylight assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul on Tuesday -- which killed at least 24 people including infants and nurses -- was followed by a blast at a funeral in the country's restive east, leaving 24 mourners dead.

President Ashraf Ghani blamed both attacks on the Taliban and Islamic State, ordering Afghan troops to "resume their operations against the enemy".

But the Taliban, which denied involvement in Tuesday's attacks, warned it was "fully prepared" to counter any strikes by Afghan forces.

"From now onwards the responsibility of further escalation of violence and its ramifications shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the Kabul administration," it said in a statement early on Wednesday.

The aggressive posturing from both sides raises fresh questions about the fate of a hoped-for peace process that is teetering just as Afghanistan grapples with a public health crisis.

The authorities dismissed the Taliban's warning, saying the group had always indulged in "violence and war".

"The Taliban cannot simply deny their involvement in violence, including the recent ones," Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters on Wednesday.

- US pushes for peace -

Ghani had earlier vowed to only react defensively to Taliban attacks to show good faith ahead of planned peace talks, set out in a landmark deal between the insurgents and the US in February.

The Taliban have not claimed any major attacks in Kabul and other cities since the deal was signed. It has, however, regularly targeted Afghan forces in several provinces.

Afghanistan's intelligence agency said Wednesday that since the US-Taliban deal the insurgents have carried out "3,712 terrorist attacks" in the country.

These attacks killed almost 500 civilians, the National Directorate of Security said in a statement.

The Taliban have blamed the Islamic State group and elements of the government's intelligence units for the latest attacks.

The Islamic State group said it was behind the funeral suicide bombing, but the hospital attack has not been claimed.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the latest violence.

"He reiterates that attacks against civilians are unacceptable and that hospitals, medical facilities and personnel have special protection under international humanitarian law," his spokesman said in a statement.

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who noted Taliban's denial of responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, have urged the Afghan government and the militant group to ensure that the peace process succeeds.

"The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice," Pompeo said in a statement.

"Failure to do so leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism, perpetual instability and economic hardship," Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The accord with Washington will see all US and foreign forces quit Afghanistan by next year.

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