Taliban reject Ghani’s ceasefire call despite looming coronavirus crisis

Taliban reject Ghani’s ceasefire call despite looming coronavirus crisis
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has freed several hundred Taliban prisoners in recent weeks. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 April 2020

Taliban reject Ghani’s ceasefire call despite looming coronavirus crisis

Taliban reject Ghani’s ceasefire call despite looming coronavirus crisis
  • Insurgents accuse Ghani of blocking peace by not releasing Taliban inmates in light of US peace deal
  • Observers say the virus outbreak could lead to worst catastrophe in country’s history

KABUL: The Taliban on Thursday turned down President Ashraf Ghani’s ceasefire offer, despite the international community calling on the government and insurgents to halt fighting for medical aid to reach all parts of Afghanistan amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

“I urge the Taliban to respond positively to the request of the UN, regional countries and the righteous call of the Afghan people and the government, to halt the fighting and announce ceasefire,” Ghani said in a recorded video message on Wednesday evening.

Rejecting Ghani’s call, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the president of blocking peace by not freeing the group’s inmates who were supposed to be released in light of a peace agreement signed with the US in Doha, Qatar, in late February.

Mujahid added that the government had failed to hold talks with them as part of the intra-Afghan dialogue that was due to follow the deal.

“Ghani is creating hurdles on the path of ceasefire and peace,” Mujahid told Arab News, adding: “Instead of ceasefire, work should be done for permanent peace. Through this request, Ghani wants to use this opportunity in his favor. We are not fighting in areas where there are (COVID-19) patients and health workers (treating them).”

Since the Doha agreement, the Taliban has refrained from targeting US-led coalition troops and conducting large-scale attacks in cities, but the group has continued strikes against Afghan government forces across the country, in which hundreds of insurgents and troops have been killed.

Civilian casualties have also been reported. According to National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal, 30 non-combatants have lost their lives in the past week. Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission in a report on Wednesday said 83 civilians have perished since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement on Feb. 29.

The Doha accord does not require the Taliban to halt attacks against Afghan government forces, but it obliged Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners by mid-March in exchange for 1,000 government troops held by the insurgents.

Since last week, Ghani has freed several hundred Taliban prisoners.

In his Wednesday address, he requested that people stay indoors to contain COVID-19 and prevent a “humanitarian tragedy” in the country which heavily relies on foreign aid due to its inadequate medical infrastructure.

According to analyst Zaibhullah Pakteen, Ghani’s call for caution will go unheard until “people start collapsing on the streets.”

Pakteen added that the president may have to seek help from the US to amend the Doha deal so that the truce comes into effect before the virus outbreak becomes a national threat.

Another analyst, Said Azam, said that Afghanistan was “extremely-ill prepared to fight against the virus,” which could lead to the worst catastrophe in the country’s history.

“If the pandemic becomes more widespread, neither the government nor the Taliban will be in a position to control it,” he told Arab News.

The Ministry of Health reported 840 cases of COVID-19 in Afghanistan and 25 related deaths as of Thursday. A sharp increase in the known cases has been observed lately. The numbers are likely to be much higher than those recorded as there are few diagnostic centers in the country.

Amid rising concern that the disease will claim a huge death toll, the governor of the western Herat province — the center of the virus outbreak in Afghanistan — announced on Wednesday that he was preparing to turn deserts into cemeteries.