ISLAMABAD - Warring sides in Afghanistan have accused each other of staging fresh battlefield attacks as their representatives held a second day of historic, U.S.-brokered peace talks Sunday away from home in Qatar.
Clashes between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents during the past 24 hours reportedly killed scores of people, including combatants from both sides and civilians.
The violence remains a major challenge for the long-awaited dialogue ongoing in the Qatari capital of Doha, involving the high-powered negotiating teams of the Taliban and the Kabul government.
Cease-fire, permanent end to war
U.S. officials have said the discussions between the Afghan rivals would focus on seeking a "comprehensive cease-fire" and a political deal aimed at permanently ending four decades of hostilities in the South Asian nation.
The talks, officially known as intra-Afghan negotiations, began Saturday just hours after a high-profile opening ceremony in Doha that was attended by, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Visiting Afghan government delegates said Sunday "there was a positive spirit" in the preliminary interaction between the two negotiating teams.
"Violence should be reduced significantly with the start of the negotiations so that we reach a humanitarian cease-fire," Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, told reporters in the Qatari capital.
Abdullah traveled to Doha with the government peace negotiating team to represent Kabul at Saturday's inauguration ceremony.
Negotiators from the two Afghan sides met again Sunday evening behind closed doors, a Taliban spokesman said.
"The communicating committees of intra-Afghan negotiation teams conducted a meeting after Maghrib (evening) prayer today and discussed the schedule and focal principles of the upcoming meetings," tweeted Mohammad Naeem.
Taliban officials insisted that establishment of "an Islamic government" in Afghanistan and release of thousands of insurgent prisoners from government custody would be priority issues for them at the negotiating table.
"We want not only a cease-fire but an end to the war," Abdul Salam Hanafi, a member of the Taliban negotiating team, told Afghan Tolo News channel.
No reduction in violence
Meanwhile, officials in Afghanistan said that contrary to their expectations, the start of the peace dialogue in Doha had not reduced the insurgent violence.
"Unfortunately, the level of Taliban violence and offensive attacks on ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) and Afghan civilians have not decreased," Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman told VOA.
A spokesman for the Taliban confirmed its fighters had ambushed an Afghan security convoy near northern Kunduz province to stop them from launching an operation against insurgent positions.
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Zabihullah Mujahid, who speaks for insurgents' battlefield attacks, said government security forces elsewhere in the country in the past two days bombed civilian targets in Taliban-held areas, causing casualties.
He also tweeted that American forces had carried out a drone strike in eastern Logar province two days ago in violation of their agreement with the Taliban, claiming the raid killed and injured civilians.
A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said the claim as false.
"Zabihullah, this is not accurate. The U.S. did not conduct a strike in Pul-e-Alam, Logar, two nights ago. Claims of civilian casualties & agreement violations are false," tweeted Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
"All parties should reduce the violence to allow the political process to take hold," he added.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement, also signed in Doha earlier this year, has bound insurgents not to attack U.S.-led foreign troops and to prevent terrorists from using Afghan soil for international attacks. The accord also requires the Taliban to seek a negotiated end to the war with rival Afghan groups.
In return. U.S. officials say all American and allied troops would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 if the conditions outlined in the February 29 pact are met by the other side.
Washington has reduced the number of U.S. troops to 8,600, down from around 13,000, since signing the deal and intends to cut the size of the U.S. force to around 4,500 by November.