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Two Killed In Kabul Mosque Bombing After Deadly Roadside Bomb Blast In North

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The Afghan authorities have been releasing Taliban prisoners.

KABUL -- Afghan officials say a bomb exploded at a mosque in the Afghan capital, killing two people, a day after seven civilians died in a roadside bombing in the country's north.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, which came amid a reduction in overall violence across much of Afghanistan since last-week's cease-fire between the Taliban and the government.

Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said the bomb targeted the Wazir Akber Khan Mosque on June 2 as worshipers gathered for evening prayers.

Arian said the mosque's imam, Mohammad Ayaz Niazi, was one of two people killed in the attack, which wounded at least two other people.

The Taliban condemned the killing of the imam "in strong terms."

The attack was also condemned by President Ashraf Ghani and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which said those responsible should be held to account.

The Islamic State extremist group has been active in Kabul in recent weeks and has in the past targeted mosques in Afghanistan.

Reports initially said the attack was conducted by a suicide bomber.

Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood is home to embassies and government buildings.

Earlier, officials said an explosion struck a small truck carrying a group of laborers late on June 1 in the volatile district of Khan Abad, in the northern Kunduz Province.

Provincial spokesman Esmatullah Muradi said he suspected the Taliban. "The Taliban plants roadside bombs to target security forces, but their bombs usually kill civilians," Muradi said.

Two of the six people wounded in the attack were in critical condition, said district chief Hayatullah Amiri.

President Ashraf Ghani had welcomed the Taliban cease-fire declared to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr and authorities responded by announcing that they would accelerate the release of Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" before the launch of peace talks.

Afghanistan's former chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, who has been appointed to lead the talks, said his team was ready to begin negotiations "at any moment."

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February aimed at ending the longest war in U.S. history that lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for security commitments from the Taliban.

The deal, of which the Afghan government was not a signatory, also stipulates that Kabul nevertheless must free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants are to release 1,000 captives.

Afghan authorities have so far released around 2,700 Taliban militants while the militant group has freed some 400 government captives.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been pushing for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin, held a video conference with top officials in Kabul including Ghani and his top deputy, Amrullah Saleh.

Ghani's office said in a statement that Saleh highlighted the importance of the ongoing drop in violence and the need for the cease-fire to hold.

The two sides discussed the future steps needed to bring peace in Afghanistan, the statement said, adding that the release of Taliban prisoners and the venue for the intra-Afghan peace talks were also tackled.

U.S. Support

In Washington, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said he was optimistic that the Taliban and Afghan government will begin peace talks, adding that U.S. troops could be pulled out ahead of schedule if all goes well.

Khalilzad said on June 1 that there'd been a lot of progress as the Afghan government speeds up the release of prisoners.

"We are in a good place," Khalilzad said, adding that levels of violence in Afghanistan have remained relatively low since the Eid al-Fitr cease-fire. "We are optimistic that finally we're moving forward to the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations."

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Khalilzad did not set a date and cautioned that "still more needs to be done" on freeing prisoners.

Under the February agreement, the United States will pull troops out of Afghanistan by mid-2021 in exchange for the insurgents' commitments to keep out Al-Qaeda and other foreign extremists.

U.S. officials have said that troops already are returning home and the withdrawal is ahead of schedule.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime, saying it had provided a safe haven to Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa
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