The United Nations has called for an immediate reduction of violence in Afghanistan, warning that civilian deaths by both the Taliban and Afghan security forces are on the rise, as the U.S. special peace envoy opened another round of talks with the Taliban to press the militants to start talking with the Kabul government.
The statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which also voiced concern about the stepped-up attacks and the brutality of assaults claimed by Islamic State (IS) militants, came after a horrific attack last week at a maternity hospital in the Afghan capital that killed 24 people, including two infants and several young mothers.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attack, which has not been claimed by any group, while Washington said the assault bore all the hallmarks of Afghanistan's IS affiliate -- targeting the country’s minority Shi'a in an area of Kabul that IS militants have repeatedly attacked in the past.
UNAMA said in the statement that the Taliban killed 208 civilians last month and also said that operations by Afghan forces in April had killed 172 civilians.
"Parties have committed to finding a peaceful solution and should protect the lives of all Afghans and not jeopardize people’s hope for an end to the war," UNAMA chief Deborah Lyons said.
She added that "intra-Afghan peace negotiations need to start as soon as possible."
The Taliban has ramped up attacks in recent weeks despite a pledge to reduce violence, a tactic that it may be employing to strengthen its negotiating position.
Meanwhile, IS militants also continue to conduct deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians.
On May 19, eight Afghan soldiers were killed while repelling a Taliban attack on the northern city of Kunduz, officials said.
The militants attacked several government posts on the outskirts of the city overnight, a Defense Ministry statement said, triggering heavy fighting.
The assault was repelled with the support of air power, the ministry said.
The attackers "suffered big losses," according to Defense Minister Assadullah Khalid.
Three civilians were also killed and 55 others wounded in the violence, provincial health director Ehsanullah Afzali said.
In the province of Parwan, north of Kabul, gunmen opened fire on worshippers offering evening prayers at a mosque, killing at least seven people and wounding 12, a local police chief said.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attack.
The latest attack came as U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad prepared to open another round of talks with the Taliban to press it to start talking to the newly reconciled political leadership in Kabul.
Khalilzad was scheduled to also visit Kabul, the U.S. State Department said in a statement on May 18.
Khalilzad will meet in Doha with Taliban representatives to discuss implementation of the agreement "and press for steps necessary to commence intra-Afghan negotiations, including a significant reduction of violence," the statement said.
He will then meet with senior government officials in Kabul "to explore steps the Afghan government needs to take to make intra-Afghan negotiations begin as soon as possible," the statement said.
During the meetings, Khalilzad will continue to reinforce the U.S. view that "the best path to end the conflict is for all parties to sit together and negotiate an agreement on the political future of Afghanistan," the statement said.
Khalilzad’s departure came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing agreement under which Abdullah will lead the government's efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.
The power struggle had been one of the main impediments to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations to end more than 18 years of war.
The talks were to begin on March 10 under a February 29 agreement, which calls for U.S. and foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan following an intra-Afghan deal in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban not to allow the country to become a haven for transnational terrorist groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban has said stepping up violence was in response to Ghani ordering Afghan forces to go on the offensive against the militant group.