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Afghan Peace Talks Resume In Qatar As UN Calls For Cease-Fire

Afghan National Directorate of Security officers display weapons and ammunition seized during operations against Taliban militants, in Helmand on February 18. The UN says that violence in Afghanistan has increased in recent months.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have resumed in Qatar after a delay of more than a month amid escalating violence in the war-wracked country as the United Nations called again for an immediate cease-fire to curb civilian casualties.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted late on February 22 night that talks had resumed.

TOLOnews quoted Naeem as saying that a meeting was held between the delegation heads and some members of the negotiating teams in Doha and the continuation of the negotiations was discussed.

Naeem said the working groups would continue their meetings on the agenda.

Talks ended abruptly last month, just days after beginning.

The reduction in violence that would lead to a cease-fire is the top priority for the Afghan government, the United States, and NATO. The Taliban has said it is negotiable, but until now has resisted any immediate cease-fire.

The UN said in a report released on February 23 that while the number of Afghan civilians killed and wounded in violence fell 15 percent last year compared to 2019, violence increased during the last months of 2020.

The report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office said the drop in civilian casualties was due in part to what looked like a tactical change by militants to targeted killings, fewer suicide bombings, and a stark drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.

But the report noted with alarm the sharp uptick and historically high civilian casualties in the final three months of last year, when the peace talks began.

The overall number of civilian casualties last year was 8,820 -- including 3,035 killed and 5,785 wounded -- a figure that fell below 10,000 for the first time since 2013.

Afghan women and children make up 43 percent of all casualties.

Washington is reviewing peace agreement the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February last year, a deal that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1.

There is growing consensus in Washington for a delay in the withdrawal deadline, but the militants have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension.

Both the United States and NATO have yet to announce a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 U.S. soldiers, still in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict and retained top negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.

In an open letter to the American people last week, Taliban lead negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged compliance with the deal.

But the UN report warned in its report that a cease-fire should be the top priority for the militants.

Last year "could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished," said Deborah Lyons, head of UNAMA. "Parties refusing to consider a cease-fire must recognize the devastating consequences."

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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