Afghanistan attacks underscore scale of challenge facing peace negotiators

Taliban admits killing nine militiamen but denies targeting 14 worshippers

At least 14 people have been killed in attacks on a mosque in northern Afghanistan and on worshippers returning from prayers in the east, as the US peace envoy arrived in Kabul to push Afghanistan’s newly united government to start peace talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban rapidly denied involvement in either shooting, but said it had carried out an attack on a checkpoint that killed nine militia fighters. The violence on the eve of the planned talks underscored the scale of the challenge facing the US-brokered efforts to negotiate an end to the war.

In a rare message to mark the upcoming celebration of Eid, the Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said the group was committed to the deal reached with the US earlier this year. He urged Washington “not to waste” the opportunity offered by the agreement, which provided for the safe departure of US troops from Afghanistan and was also meant to pave the way for serious peace talks between Afghan parties. This part of the process has stalled.

After the February signing ceremony the Taliban rejected government calls for a ceasefire, continuing attacks inside Afghanistan and prompting the Afghan government to accuse it of bad faith.

In comments quoted by the AFP news agency, Akhundzada said: “I urge American officials to not afford anyone the opportunity to obstruct, delay and ultimately derail this internationally recognised bilateral agreement. The [Taliban] is committed to the agreement.”

The US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Kabul days after Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, finally brokered a deal with his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to settle a dispute over the results of last year’s presidential election.

Both men had claimed victory, accused the other of fraud and organised his own inauguration, with the long standoff prompting the US to cancel $1bn (£817m) in aid.

The new agreement leaves Ghani as president, while Abdullah will control half of the cabinet posts and lead the government’s peace efforts.

That process was dealt a heavy blow last week, however, by a horrific attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul. In response Ghani ordered Afghan forces back on the offensive against the insurgents, after a period in “active defence” to prepare for possible talks.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the bloodshed and Khalilzad was quick to say it was the work of Islamic State, but Afghan government officials said it was too early to apportion blame.

Tuesday’s attacks also targeted civilians, with gunmen storming a mosque in Parwan province, north of the capital, as people gathered to break the Ramadan fast, killing at least 11. The next morning relatives carried the bodies of their loved ones to the provincial capital, Charikar, to protest outside the governor’s office.

Later that the evening, gunmen in eastern Khost province attacked a family returning home from prayers, killing three brothers, Adil Haidari, spokesman for the provincial police chief, told AP.

The third attack, the only one claimed by the Taliban, hit pro-government militia checkpoints in the north.