The Taliban has said an agreement is close with U.S. officials on a deal that would see American forces withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban promise the country would not become a haven for international militants.
The statement came during a ninth round of talks on August 28 in Qatar's capital, Doha, to end the 18-year Afghan conflict, as officials in the war-wracked country said that at least 14 pro-government militia members were killed by Taliban militants in the western province of Herat.
"We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation," said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha.
U.S. officials engaged in the talks with the Taliban in Doha were not immediately available for comment.
The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been leading the talks, is scheduled to be in Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani about the agreement, according to officials close to the negotiations.
In Moscow, officials said they had not been notified by the parties that an accord was near. But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that "Russia stands ready to act as a witness to the signature or as a guarantor of the implementation of an agreement" between Washington and the Taliban if requested.
Russia has interests and a long history in Afghanistan.
Some 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in Moscow-dominated Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 in a conflict with Islamic guerrillas, who were then backed by the United States.
A senior security official in Kabul said the Taliban and U.S. officials had agreed upon a timeline of about 14 to 24 months for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Details would be shared with the Afghan government before they were made public, the official said.
U.S. Seeks Guarantees
The United States formally ended its Afghan combat mission in 2014 but about 14,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, mainly training and advising government forces battling the Taliban, an affiliate of the Islamic State group, and other militants. Some U.S. forces carry out counterterrorism operations.
At the Pentagon, the top U.S. general, Joseph Dunford, said it was "premature" to talk about the future of U.S. counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan.
"Any agreement that we have moving forward, the president has been clear, is going to be conditions based," said General Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We're going to make sure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary, and we're going to try to have an effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan," Dunford told reporters, adding that any agreement should also lead to dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government for a broader peace deal.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, standing next to him, said the deal must guarantee that Afghanistan "is no longer a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States."
Despite the U.S. and Taliban talks, there has been no let-up in violence in Afghanistan.
In Herat, the 14 militia members were killed after a large number of Taliban fighters stormed security checkpoints in the Chahardara area of the province's Rubat-e-Sangi district.
"At least nine others are wounded in the clashes and the Taliban militants were pushed back after Afghan forces reinforced the area," said Abdul Ahad Walizada, a spokesman for Herat police.
He said there was an unspecified number of Taliban casualties.
Separately, in eastern Nangarhar Province, governor's spokesman Attaullah Khogynai said a university professor was killed and two others wounded on August 27 when a bomb attached to their car exploded in the provincial capital, Jalalabad.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in Herat. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack in Nangarhar, where both the Taliban and the local affiliate of the Islamic State extremist group are active.