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U.S., Taliban near peace deal as insurgent attacks intensify

Reuters

Afghan security forces take position during a battle with the Taliban in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

ReutersKABUL (Reuters) — U.S. and Taliban negotiators are close to a deal that would open the way for peace in Afghanistan, a top U.S. official said on Sunday, as the insurgents followed their weekend assault on the strategic center of Kunduz by attacking a second northern city.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat overseeing negotiations for Washington, said he would travel to the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sunday evening for consultations after wrapping up the ninth round of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar.

“We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honorable and sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country,” he said in a Twitter post.

The comment came as Taliban fighters attacked Pul-e Khumri, in the northern province of Baghlan, just a day after a major show of strength by hundreds of fighters who overran parts of Kunduz, a strategic city the insurgents have twice come close to taking in recent years.

The interior ministry said in a statement on Sunday that 20 Afghan security force members and five civilians were killed, and at least 85 civilians were injured in Kunduz city during clashes with the Taliban fighters.

While Kunduz was calm after clearance operations that had driven out insurgents, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said, fighters had taken up positions in two areas of Pul-e Khumri and were battling Afghan security forces.

Afghan forces killed five gunmen and arrested two militants during the clearance operation in Pul-e-Khumri city, Rahimi said.

Local officials and residents said the city was locked down with Taliban fighters occupying positions around one of the main entry points into the center and cutting the main highway connecting Kabul with the north.

“Right now, clashes are under way between the Taliban and security forces in the city, close to the governor’s compound and police headquarters,” said Abdul Jamil, a Pul-e Khumri resident reached by telephone.

“The city is closed and very little movement can be seen. People are terrified,” he said.

There was also fighting in the central province of Ghazni and Laghman Province, east of Kabul, Taliban and government officials said. A blast at a football stadium killed the mayor of the northern city of Faizabad while a road-side bomb killed at least eight people, including women and children traveling in a car in northern Balkh Province.

A second road-side bomb in western Farah Province killed two women, four children and two policemen, local police officials said.

Local officials in Faryab Province, on the north west border said an air strike killed at least 12 civilians, including eight children but the defense ministry denied the report.Speech

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