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ISLAMABAD - The Taliban has turned down calls for a cease-fire in Afghanistan during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Friday. The Afghan government and others had hoped to enable health officials to better respond to the "common threat" of the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesman for the Islamist insurgency argued Thursday that its agreement with the United States outlines an internationally endorsed "comprehensive framework" on how to promote Afghan peace.
"If it is implemented [fully], it will take us to a lasting cease-fire and peace," tweeted Suhail Shaheen, referring to the February 29 landmark U.S.-Taliban pact.
The agreement for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops from Afghanistan calls for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails in exchange for 1,000 government security forces being held by the insurgents.
The U.S.-Taliban deal, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, required the prisoner swap to be concluded by March 10, when Taliban and Afghan teams were supposed to open direct peace talks to negotiate a sustainable cease-fire and power-sharing arrangement.
"In a time that the lives of thousands of [Taliban] prisoners are being put into danger due to the coronavirus and hurdles are created in the way of the [Afghan] peace process and complete implementation of the agreement, despite that, asking for cease-fire is not rational and convincing," Shaheen said.
The Afghan government, which was not part of the accord, began a phased release of prisoners earlier this month and so far has freed fewer than 500 Taliban inmates.
In return, the Taliban have set free 60 prisoners, although Afghan officials insist the released men are mostly civilians.
Analysts say the slow pace of the prisoner swap means it will be many weeks if not months before much-sought intra-Afghan talks could begin.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's embattled government and the United Nations have both urged the Taliban to cease hostilities during the Ramadan fasting month, citing the looming pandemic threat.
Afghanistan has reported nearly 1,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 40 people have died. But officials and critics fear the number could be much higher, citing very small-scale testing.
Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, in a message Thursday underscored the need for warring sides to respond to her institution's call for a cease-fire.
"At a time of increased uncertainty, with COVID-19 presenting another deadly challenge for the country and for the world community, I strongly encourage everyone to get behind the secretary-general's urgent call for a global cease-fire to silence the guns and enable all Afghans to come together to fight the pandemic," Lyons said.
The Taliban have rejected similar calls in the past. In 2018, however, the insurgent group agreed to a cease-fire during Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
The U.S.-initiated peace deal is also threatened by a lingering political feud over who has emerged as the legitimate president of Afghanistan following the controversial election last September and a recent surge in Taliban attacks that killed scores of Afghan forces.
Incumbent Ghani has been officially declared as the winner of the Afghan presidential polls, but runner-up Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome. The rival leaders held competing inauguration ceremonies last month, politically paralyzing the war-shattered country.
The political dispute has provoked Washington to cut $1 billion in assistance for Afghanistan this year, vowing to cut another $1 billion next year if Ghani and Abdullah fail to agree on forming an "inclusive" government.