Asia

Rockets land near Afghan presidential palace as country marks start of Eid al-Adha

Rockets hit the Afghan capital on Tuesday, landing near the presidential palace during prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, but President Ashraf Ghani and many worried worshippers continued praying at the Kabul outdoor gathering.

At least three rockets landed outside the palace, shattering the early morning calm in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the presidential palace and several embassies, including the US mission.

In a video posted on the official palace Facebook page, dozens of men gathered in the gardens continued their prayers even as the rockets fizzed overhead and exploded nearby.`

President Ghani, dressed in traditional Afghan clothing and a turban, appeared not to flinch as he continued the prayer ritual.

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes as the Taliban continue a series of offensives to coincide with the final drawdown of foreign troops from the war-wracked country.

While ideologically different, the much smaller IS group has been accused in the past by Afghan officials of acting as a proxy for the Taliban – particularly in attacks targeting civilian government workers.

"Soldiers of the caliphate targeted the presidential palace… and the Green Zone in Kabul with seven Katyusha rockets," IS group said in a statement circulated on messaging app Telegram.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said three rockets had been fired from a pickup truck, but one failed to detonate. "Based on our initial information, we have no casualties," he added.

The palace was attacked last year as hundreds gathered for Ghani's inauguration for a second term as president, prompting some to flee.

The Taliban have announced ceasefires during past Islamic holidays, offering respite to Afghans who can visit family in relative safety, but no such offer was made on this occasion.

Symbolic attack

Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday's attack was symbolic, intended to demonstrate the reach of militants operating in Afghanistan.

"The fact that these landed so close to the presidential palace… show that these attacks have the potential to become quite lethal," he added.

The Taliban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a sweeping campaign, capturing scores of districts, border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.

The speed and ease of the Taliban offensive is a massive psychological blow to the Afghan government.

The latest attack comes a day after more than a dozen diplomatic missions in Kabul called for "an urgent end" to the insurgents' ruthless military offensive, saying it was at odds with claims they want to secure a political deal to end the conflict.

That statement followed another round of inconclusive talks in Doha over the weekend between the Afghan government and the Taliban that many hoped would kickstart the ailing peace process.

The Taliban's offensive is in direct contradiction to their claim to support a negotiated settlement, the statement read.

"It has resulted in loss of innocent Afghan lives, including through continued targeted killings, displacement of the civilian population, looting and burning of buildings, destruction of vital infrastructure, and damage to communication networks."

Ceasefire calls

For months, the two sides have been meeting on and off in the Qatari capital but have achieved little, with talks appearing to have lost momentum as the militants make battlefield gains.

A joint statement late Sunday said they had agreed on the need to reach a "just solution" and to meet again next week.

"We also agreed that there should be no pause in the negotiations," Abdullah Abdullah, who oversees the Afghan government's delegation, told AFP on Monday.

He noted, however, that neither side was currently pursuing a joint ceasefire during the talks, despite urgent calls from Afghan civil society and the international community to end the fighting.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Istanbul was prepared to take over running Kabul airport if its NATO ally the United States met certain conditions.

Turkey has been negotiating with US defence officials over an offer to secure the airport, which is key to allowing countries to retain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal.

Erdogan told journalists in a televised address from Nicosia, in northern Cyprus, that as well as providing logistical, financial and administrative support, the US must "stand by us in diplomatic relations".

>> Turkey offers help securing Afghan airport, but has Erdogan bitten off more than he can chew?

Last week, the Taliban called Turkey's offer to protect the airport "reprehensible".

Over the weekend, the Taliban's supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said he "strenuously favours" a political settlement — even as the hardline Islamist movement continues its offensives.

In Washington, the State Department said some 700 interpreters and their immediate family members who are fleeing Afghanistan will be relocated to an army base in the state of Virginia.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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