KABUL -- Afghan officials say at least three people were killed and 11 wounded when a roadside bomb hit a vehicle carrying government employees in Kabul on March 18, as representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and key countries gather in Moscow to push for a reduction in violence to advance the peace process in Afghanistan.
Police spokesman Ferdows Faramarz told reporters that the Kabul blast took place at around 7:20 a.m. in the 17th district.
Reports say the explosion hit a bus carrying employees of the Information and Technology Ministry.
No one immediately claimed responsibility, but the Western-backed government in Kabul has blamed Taliban insurgents for recent attacks targeting government employees, civil society figures, and journalists.
The militant group has denied involvement in the campaign.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said nine security force members were killed in a helicopter crash in the central province of Maidan Wardak late on March 17.
Unidentified sources were quoted as saying the helicopter was hit by a rocket during takeoff.
Amid escalating violence across Afghanistan, Moscow will host a conference later on March 18 featuring high-level delegations representing the Taliban and Afghan government as well as the United States, Pakistan, and China.
The meeting comes a day after U.S. President Joe Biden warned it could be difficult for the United States to meet a deadline set out in a U.S.-Taliban deal to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1.
"I'm in the process of making that decision now as to when they'll leave," Biden said in an interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC.
"The fact is that that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president -- the former president -- worked out. And so we're in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision's going to be -- it's in process now."
The deal was signed in February 2020 during the last year of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump later cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 in his final days in office. They are part of a NATO mission that has just under 10,000 troops helping to train and advise Afghan security forces.
The Taliban has said the May 1 date set for the U.S. withdrawal under the deal is inflexible. In response to Biden's comments, a Taliban spokesman told AFP there would be "consequences" if the United States did not stick to the agreed timetable.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government resumed last month in Qatar after a delay of more than a month. But the talks, which convened in September, have made little progress.
The United States is shifting focus to meetings among key regional countries aimed at pushing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Taliban insurgents, and other Afghan political leaders to form an interim government.
The Taliban’s 10-member delegation to the Moscow talks will be led by Mullah Baradar, the group's deputy leader and chief negotiator at the talks in Qatar. The Afghan government side will be headed by former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Pakistan will be represented by veteran diplomat Mohammed Sadiq, while the United States has sent longtime Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
The Moscow gathering will be followed by a meeting of regional players next month in Turkey and a summit that Khalilzad has asked the United Nations to organize.
The Afghan government has said it would take part in the conference in Turkey, but the Taliban has not yet confirmed whether it would attend.
The United Nations, which is not participating in the Moscow talks, announced on March 17 that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has nominated a new personal envoy, Jean Arnault of France, to work for peace in Afghanistan.
Arnault will work with Deborah Lyons, who is the world body's special envoy to Afghanistan. The Canadian is also the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.