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Putin met Taliban chief for support against IS

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London: A top Afghan militant commander has claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin held an unpublicized meeting with Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the current Taliban chief, to discuss possible Russian support against the IS insurgents who in recent weeks have been advancing in Afghanistan, a media report said.

Putin is known to be concerned that the IS militants are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, which borders the former Soviet satellite states of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

A Taliban commander told The Sunday Times that his group had been promised Russian arms and financial support only weeks before a resurgence in violence that has seen key districts in the southern province of Helmand fall under the Taliban control.

Putin is said to have met Mulla Mansour over dinner at a late night meeting on a military base in Tajikistan in September.

The Russian president was present in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, on September 14 and 15 to attend a regional counter-terrorism meeting, however, the Taliban denied reports that their representatives met Russian officials to discuss the common threat from the IS in Afghanistan.

In a statement, the Taliban said they were in contact with countries in the region but had not discussed support against the Islamic State.

“The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right,” it said, using its formal name.

“But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so-called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue,” it added.(IANS) 

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Grass-Roots Peace Movement Spreads Across Afghanistan

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Afghan protesters for peace hold banners during a protest in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, March 31, 2018. Several hunger strikers taking part in a rare sit-in peace protest in Afghanistan's restive south have been taken to a hospital for treatment, officials and protesters said. VOA

The grass-roots call for peace by some residents that began as a sit-in in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province is gathering momentum and spreading to other provinces of the country.

A car bomb explosion March 23 in the nation’s southern region, near a packed sports stadium in the provincial capital of Lashkargah, killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens more.

The attack occurred while a wrestling match was underway. The Taliban did not officially claim responsibility, but Afghan officials assigned blame to the insurgent group, saying it typically denies responsibility for attacks that kill large number of civilians.

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Initially, it was viewed as just another routine terror assault that killed civilians, and it would have remained so had it not been for the residents of Helmand province, who decided they had to act.

A man carries a wounded boy to a hospital after a car bombing outside a sports stadium in Lashkargah, capital city of southern Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 23, 2018. Provincial chief of police Abdul Ghafar Safi said the blast was carried out by a suicide bomber and that the target was civilians. VOA

A group of young local men began a sit-in at the capital of the province and demanded an end to violence. Later, women joined the sit-in and urged the warring sides to end the vicious cycle of violence that has been tearing through the nation.

“Stop making us widows and making us cry over the death of our children,” a woman said at the rally in Helmand last month.

Hunger strike

The initial anti-war sit-in turned into a hunger strike after the Taliban rejected the protesters’ pleas for peace and instead warned them not to go near Taliban territory. The insurgent group instead instructed locals to conduct their protest at a nearby Afghan and NATO military base.

The strike continued for three days before religious clerics intervened and encouraged protesters to eat.

“Religious clerics considered the hunger strike to be against Islam, and they asked us to end it, promising they would go to the Taliban and discuss our demands with them,” Bacha Khan, a protester in Helmand, told VOA.

The hunger strike did end. The sit-in, however, continues, gaining momentum and rapidly expanding to other provinces.

Iqbal Khyber, an activist from Helmand and a key member of the sit-in, told VOA demands for peace would not end.

“Our sit-in will continue until we see at least two days of cease-fire between warring sides. Our long march began in Kandahar province [in southern Afghanistan] today [April 5]. We will put up the peace sit-in tents in every corner of the country,” Khyber told VOA.

“Preparations for putting peace sit-in tents in Kabul, Zabul, Paktia, Khost, Bamyan, Balkh, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Farah are already underway. We will not stop until our demand for peace is met,” he added.

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Growing demonstrations

Demonstrations have begun in western Herat and central Bamyan provinces, where dozens of protesters got together and expressed their solidarity with the Helmand peace sit-in.

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“The call for peace is the voice of all Afghans and it cannot be attributed to a specific tribe, group or party,” Faqir Ahmad, a protester at a Herat peace sit-in tent, told VOA.

At a gathering in central Bamyan province, activists announced their backing of the Helmand sit-in.

“Today we pronounce our support for the peace and advocacy movement of our brothers in Helmand,” Ismail Zaki, a civil society activist in Bamyan, told VOA.

Government reaction

While at an international conference in Kabul in late February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. He advocated for the peace movement across the country.

“I welcome the campaign in Helmand and other provinces where women, elders and youth have gathered to seek peace and raise their voices against war and violence. And I hope this peaceful national movement will be strengthened and supported by the people in large numbers,” Ghani said in a Dari tweet on Wednesday.

The Taliban have yet to officially respond to the Afghan government’s offer of unconditional peace talks.

The Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), a government body tasked with talking to the insurgents, also praised the initiative of Helmand residents.

“I call on Tahrek-e-Taliban, the commanders of the Taliban, the people who are living in Taliban-controlled areas, let’s end the war and embrace peace,” Karim Khalili, chairman of the HPC, told a gathering on Wednesday in southern Kandahar province.

Taliban’s stance

While the Taliban initially rejected the local plea for peace, the insurgent group has since softened its stance.

A Taliban official requesting anonymity told VOA that his group is looking forward to meeting and talking with the protesters.

“It is a totally new subject for us. We are studying it and we will meet with these people and listen to their demands and will try to find out why they are making such demands from the Taliban alone,” the insurgent official told VOA.

That meeting apparently happened. According to the organizers of the sit-in, local Taliban groups in Helmand have supported their call for peace.

“Local Taliban delegations visited us, extended their support and expressed their frustration of war,” Khyber, a sit-in organizer, told VOA. VOA

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