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Afghan Peace Talks With U.S. Enter Fourth Day, Taliban Says

FILE: Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have held talks with Taliban envoys in Qatar for a fourth day, the militants said, as the two sides pursue a potential deal to bring an end to Afghanistan's 17-year conflict.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the media on January 24 that "discussions are still ongoing," although they had initially been scheduled to last for two days.

"We will talk in detail later when we reach agreement," Zabihullah said.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry also confirmed that talks were under way, although there was no immediate comment from the U.S. Embassy or NATO in Kabul.

The United States said on January 22 that it had resumed talks with the militants in Qatar, where special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was meeting Taliban representatives.

Washington wants the insurgents to enter talks with the Afghan government, but they have long refused, saying it is a U.S. puppet.

Khalilzad spent the weekend in Pakistan. where he held talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of a regional tour that saw the envoy shuttling between India, China, and Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has held at least four meetings with Taliban representatives, but there has been no let-up in the violence so far.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Taliban Mastermind Of Attack On Military Base Said Killed

FILE: Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (June 2018).

Afghanistan's main spy agency says it has killed a Taliban commander who masterminded this week's attack on Afghan forces at a military base in which scores of people were killed.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) said the commander, whose name it gave only as Noman, was killed in an air raid on the evening of January 22.

"Noman, along with seven others, was targeted after being identified by the NDS forces," the agency said in a statement on January 23.

"NDS will follow the terrorist group and kill them all," it said.

Taliban officials did not immediately confirm the alleged death of the commander.

The agency said 36 people were killed and 58 injured in the Taliban attack. Other government and security sources gave the death toll as at least 72.

With reporting by Reuters and Tolo News

U.S. Soldier Killed By 'Enemy Fire' In Afghanistan

Most of the remaining Western forces in the country primarily train and advise local security forces.

The U.S. military says one of its service members was killed by "enemy small-arms fire" in Afghanistan on January 22.

The incident was under investigation, a statement said, without providing further details.

It did not name the service member or the branch of the military, pending notification of the family.

News of the death came the day after a suicide bombing attack by the Taliban on an Afghan military base in the eastern Afghan province of Maidan Wardak killed dozens of members of the Afghan security forces.

Some 14,000 U.S. soldiers are currently serving in Afghanistan, where the United States and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in 2014.

Most of the remaining Western forces in the country primarily train and advise local security forces, which have been struggling against attacks from a resurgent Taliban and other militant extremist groups.

Casualties Reported In Taliban Attack In Eastern Afghanistan

Taliban militants have carried out an assault on a military base in Maidan Wardak Province in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the January 21 attack on the base, which also serves as a police training facility.

An Afghan health official told the AP that at least 12 people had been killed in the attack.

A local official in Maidan Wardak Province told RFE/RL that the total casualty figure was more than 20.

A suicide car bomber struck the base around 7 a.m., after which an unknown number of militants attacked.

Abdurahman Mangal, spokesman for the Maidan Wardak Province governor, told RFE/RL that three suicide bombers were shot dead by security forces before they were able to detonate their bombs.

Taliban militants killed eight police officers and wounded 10 on January 20 in Logar Province in an attack that targeted a convoy conveying the provincial governor.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Visiting Pakistan, U.S. Senator Calls For Trump-Khan Meeting

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham

U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said he will urge President Donald Trump to meet with the Pakistani prime minister to reset long-difficult U.S. relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke in Islamabad on January 20 after meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The comments come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

"I think they will hit it off" if they meet as they have "similar personalities," said Graham, who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, of the proposed meeting between the U.S. president and Khan.

"With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship," he told a press conference.

The senator called for a "strategic engagement" between Washington and Islamabad that would include a free-trade agreement.

The United States and Afghanistan have repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing "safe havens" for the Taliban on its soil. Islamabad rejects the allegation.

Graham's trip to Pakistan coincided with a four-day visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, during which he met with Khan and the country's military chief General Qamer Javed Bajwa.

At the talks, Pakistan and the United States “reaffirmed their commitment to advance the Afghan peace process," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

Khalilzad has recently held a series of meetings with the Taliban's political office in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban have long refused to hold direct talks with Afghan officials, whom they dismiss as "puppets."

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Taliban Denies Being Ready To Resume Afghan Peace Talks

The U.S. State Department's Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad on January 17 to meet Pakistani authorities.

The Taliban has denied reports that it is prepared to resume talks with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on ending Afghanistan’s 17-year war.

Pakistani media had reported that a meeting in Islamabad was possible following talks in the Pakistani capital between Khalilzad and senior Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, on January 18.

However, the Taliban ruled it out on January 19.

"We wanted to make it clear that we will not hold any meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad on January 17 and met Imran Khan as well as the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi and other officials.

Khalilzad was named by the Trump administration four months ago as a special envoy to negotiate peace.

The Afghan-born Khalilzad is a veteran U.S. diplomat. He served as President George W. Bush's ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Khalilzad Briefs Pakistani FM On Afghan Peace Efforts

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (R) meets with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi, in Islamabad on January 18.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi in Islamabad on January 18 to brief him on his recent efforts to resolve neighboring Afghanistan’s 17-year war, Pakistani officials said.

Qureshi assured Khalilzad of Pakistan's support for the peace process, which has suffered a setback because of the Taliban's refusal to talk directly to the Afghan government, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Washington hopes Pakistan can help end the conflict.

The Afghan government regularly accuses Pakistan of providing support to the Taliban. Pakistani officials deny this but say they have a degree of influence which they have been using to try to persuade the movement to accept peace talks.

On January 17, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and "expressed his gratitude for Pakistan's sincere facilitation of these efforts", according to a statement from the Pakistan government spokesman's office.

The two leaders also issued invitations to visit their respective countries and agreed "to remain engaged and create an environment for resolving all outstanding issues", it said.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Afghanistan's Ghani Thanks Pakistan For Help With Taliban Talks

FILE: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked Pakistan on January 17 for its help in advancing peace talks with the Taliban amid continuing diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the 17-year war in the country, Pakistani officials said.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been leading the push to broker an agreement with the Afghan Taliban, was due in Pakistan following meetings with Ghani and other Afghan officials in Kabul.

On January 17, Ghani called Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and "expressed his gratitude for Pakistan's sincere facilitation of these efforts," according to a statement from a Pakistan government spokesman's office.

Afghanistan has often had hostile relations with neighboring Pakistan, regularly accusing Islamabad of supporting the Taliban.

Pakistani officials deny supporting the extremist group and say Islamabad is strongly in favor of a settlement that would maintain stability in Afghanistan.

Taliban representatives said this week that Islamabad was pressuring its leaders to accept talks with the Afghan government, detaining a senior leader in the city of Peshawar before releasing him a few days later.

Taliban envoys have met with Khalilzad on at least three occasions but have repeatedly refused to talk directly to the internationally recognized Afghan government, which they view as a puppet of Washington.

Taliban Must Talk To Afghan Government, Says U.S. Envoy

U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says that a peaceful end to the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan requires the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which they have consistently refused to do.

Zalmay Khalilzad spoke to the Afghan media in Kabul on January 16 on his latest visit to the country, amid diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict which began with the 2001 U.S. invasion.

"The road to peace will require Taliban to sit with other Afghans, including the government," Khalilzad said.

"There is a consensus among all regional partners on this point," he added, according to a press release by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Taliban representatives have long refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, which they say is an U.S. puppet.

Taliban envoys have met several times with U.S. officials over the past months, but earlier this week threatened to suspend the talks, accusing Washington of changing the agenda of the talks and "unilaterally" adding new points.

"If the Talibs want to talk, we can talk, if they want to fight we can fight. We hope that the Talibs want to make peace," Khalilzad said in response to the threat.

Khalilzad arrived in Kabul late on January 15, where he met with the country's political leaders. He had previously traveled to India, the United Arab Emirates, and China. He is expected next in Pakistan.

His tour -- the third since his appointment in September -- comes shortly after U.S. officials said in December that President Donald Trump intends to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

With additional reporting by AFP

Germany Detains Man Suspected Of Spying For Iran

FILE: German Police officers watch demonstrators gathering to protest against the German asylum policy at the Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees and Integration of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in Duesseldorf (July 2018).

German authorities say they have detained a 50-year old Afghan-German dual national suspected of passing data to an Iranian intelligence agency.

The suspect, identified only as 50-year-old Abdul Hamid S., worked as a “language expert and cultural adviser” for the German military, the federal prosecutor's office said on January 15.

“In this capacity, he is believed to have passed on information to an Iranian intelligence service," a statement said.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said it was aware of an espionage case involving a member of the Bundeswehr, but declined to give any further details.

The suspect, who was detained in the Rhineland in western Germany, was set to appear before a judge later in the day.

German news outlet Spiegel Online reported that the man had spied on the army for years and had access to highly classified material, including the German troops' mission in Afghanistan.

There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials on the case.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Taliban Claims Responsibility For Deadly Kabul Bomb Blast

Afghan security forces gather at the site of a powerful truck bomb attack a day after it detonated near a foreign compound in Kabul on January 15.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a bombing in Kabul that killed at least four people.

The explosion near a fortified foreign compound late on January 14 also wounded 113 people, according to the Health Ministry.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the militant group, said on January 15 that four attackers blew up an explosives-packed truck before entering Green Village and "killing many" foreigners.

The Interior Ministry said three military personnel and one civilian were killed in the bombing, while 12 women and 23 children were among those wounded.

Authorities were investigating if any foreigners were among the casualties, it also said.

Until recently, some UN staff lived and worked at Green Village, but officials said the area was now largely empty and "only a number of guards" were left.

The latest attack comes as U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is touring the region for meetings aimed at bringing an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghanistan, where it is waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government and government security forces.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Four Killed, 40 Wounded In Kabul Car-Bomb Attack

Afghan health workers carry an injured man to the hospital after a car bomb targeted a foreigners' compound in Kabul on January 14.

KABUL -- At least four people were killed and more than 40 were wounded when a car bomb exploded near a foreign compound in the east of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, on January 14, officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said the blast had targeted Green Village, where some foreign NGOs and workers used to be based.

Danish said at least 10 children were among the wounded.

Until recently, some UN staff lived and worked at the compound, but Danish said the area was now largely empty and "only a number of guards" were left.

"Residential buildings nearby have sustained heavy damage," Danish said. "Special police force units have been deployed to the site to check if there are more attackers."

The latest attack comes as U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is touring the region for meetings aimed at bringing an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Last week, Taliban leaders called off a fourth round of talks with U.S. officials in the Arab Gulf state of Qatar due to an "agenda disagreement," and refused to allow what they called "puppet" Afghan government officials to join the talks.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Five Killed In Taliban Attack On Afghan Police Station

FILE: An Afghan female police officer stands guard outside a police station in Herat (October 2017).

An attack on a police station in western Afghanistan has left five people dead, officials say.

The assault in Herat city, the capital of the province of the same name, was launched at around 6 p.m. local time on January 12, provincial governor spokesman Jailani Farhad said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yosouf Ahmadi said the group was responsible for the attack.

Jailani said those killed in the two-hour firefight included three police officers, a child, and another civilian. Four policemen were also wounded.

All three attackers were also killed by security forces, provincial police commander Aminullah Amarkhil told RFE/RL.

Police special forces were deployed to the area, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish.

Taliban militants have been carrying out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces, despite stepped-up efforts by the United States to find a negotiated end to the country's 17-year war.

With reporting by dpa and AFP

At Least 30 Afghan Troops Killed In Taliban Attacks

FILE: An Afghan army operation in the northern province of Takhar.

Officials in four provinces of Afghanistan say a series of Taliban attacks on security checkpoints have killed at least 32 members of the Afghan security forces and pro-government militias.

The attacks took place in the northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, and in the western province of Badghis on January 10.

In Kunduz, Qala-e Zal district chief Ahmad Fahim Qarluq said attacks by a large number of Taliban fighters in the early morning hours killed 10 soldiers and police and wounded 11.

Qarluq said 25 Taliban fighters were killed in those clashes.

In neighboring Baghlan and Takhar provinces, local Afghan officials said the Taliban killed 16 members of pro-government militias.

They said the militants also suffered heavy casualties.

Jamshid Shahabi, a spokesman for the governor of Badghis Province, said six members of the security forces were killed and 10 wounded in clashes at checkpoints and other security outposts.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks.

He said in a statement that Taliban fighters killed dozens of Afghan troops and had seized a large amount of ammunition and weapons.

The Taliban has ramped up attacks on security forces and government facilities in recent months, while Afghan and U.S. troops have increased operations against the militants' field commanders.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, dpa, and Tolo News

U.S. Envoy On Afghanistan Starts Regional Tour After Taliban Talks Cancelled

U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad

KABUL -- The U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has begun a two-week diplomatic tour of Afghanistan and other countries in the region in an attempt to push forward the peace process with the Taliban.

Khalilzad began his latest diplomatic mission on January 8 -- the same day that Taliban representatives announced that they would not attend peace talks in Qatar planned for January 9 and 10 with Khalilzad and other U.S. officials.

Khalilzad’s tour is meant to take him to Kabul as well as China, Pakistan, and India.

The U.S. State Department says his visits will last through January 21.

Khalilzad met Taliban representatives in Abu Dhabi in December.

But a Taliban representative in Qatar told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on January 8 that it had "postponed" a January 9-10 meeting with Khalilzad "until further consultations" could resolve an "agenda disagreement."

Another Taliban source said the disagreement focused on Washington's insistence that Afghan government officials must be involved in the talks.

He said there was also disagreement on a possible cease-fire deal and a proposed prisoner exchange.

The Taliban has consistently rejected requests from regional powers to allow Afghan government officials to take part in peace talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in Afghanistan.

With additional reporting by Reuters

Dozens Killed, Injured In Afghanistan Gold-Mine Collapse

FILE: Afghan miners work at a gold mine in northern Afghanistan.

At least 30 people have been killed in the collapse of a gold mine in northeastern Afghanistan, officials say.

A police spokesman for Badakhshan Province, Sanaullah Rohani, said that at least seven people were also injured in the January 6 incident.

Kohistan district Governor Mohammad Rustam said that locals were using an excavator to search for gold near a local river when the makeshift mine collapsed.

The victims were villagers who were mining for gold illegally, according to provincial government spokesman Nik Mohammad Nazari.

"The villagers have been involved in this business for decades with no government control over them," Nazari said.

At least 50 people were reportedly on the scene at the time of the collapse and two rescue teams were dispatched to assist.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered emergency aid for the victims and told authorities to immediately assist those who may still be under the rubble.

The AFP news agency quoted a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority as saying that the families of the wounded will receive 10,000 afghanis ($133) in compensation, while those of the dead will get 50,000 afghanis ($664).

The spokesman, Hashmat Bahaduri, said defense ministry helicopters had already been dispatched to deliver cash to the families and airlift the wounded to hospitals.

Badakhshan is a remote, mountainous province bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China.

Illegal mining is common in resource-rich Afghanistan.

Most of the country’s minerals remain untapped due to the conflict with the Taliban.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, AP, and Reuters

Afghan Forces Free Hostages As Taliban Kidnap Government Employees

FILE: Afghan soldiers during an operation against Taliban militants in Helmand Province (September 2018).

Afghan special forces have rescued 12 people from a Taliban prison in the country's south on the same day that the militants kidnapped a group of 15 government employees in the west, officials said.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's main intelligence agency, said in a statement that special forces stormed a Taliban prison in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand Province and rescued 12 people who had been held hostage.

The NDS did not provide any further details on the raid in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold that is the center of the country's opium production.

The statement came as officials in the western province of Farah said Taliban militants kidnapped a group of government employees.

Provincial council members Khair Mohammad Norzai and Dadullah Qaneh told the dpa news agency that the workers were kidnapped as they were heading to their offices on the outskirts of Farah city, the provincial capital.

Farah, located along the border with Iran, has been the scene of fierce clashes between government forces and the Taliban in recent months.

Based on reporting by dpa and Khaama

Turkey To Host Afghanistan, Pakistan For Taliban Peace Talks

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on January 2019.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country will host the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of efforts to end the Afghan Taliban's 17-year insurgency.

Erdogan, speaking at a joint news conference with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on January 4, said the trilateral meeting would take place in Istanbul after local elections in March.

Khan told reporters he hoped the meeting would bring "badly needed peace" to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan is already helping dialogue between Taliban and [the] Americans," said Khan, who was making his first visit to Turkey since he came to power in August. "I look forward to the summit meeting in Istanbul, where we hope that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey will be able to help in this peace process."

The announcement of a trilateral meeting comes amid U.S. attempts to encourage negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held at least three rounds of talks with Taliban officials in recent months in the Middle East, although the militants have refused to talk directly to the Afghan government.

Based on reporting by AP and Daily Sabah

Seven Afghan Border Guards Killed In Militant Attack In Kandahar

FILE: The aftermath of a suicide attack in Suicide attack in a rural region of Kandahar.

Militants have attacked a checkpoint in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar Province, killing seven border guards, officials said on January 5.

Four others were wounded in the attack on January 4 in the Spin Bolduk district, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

In an later gun battle on the same day, 16 insurgents were killed and 11 wounded, the spokesman, Aziz Ahmad Azizi, added.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

It comes amid nearly daily attacks by the Taliban targeting Afghan forces.

The uptick in violence has occurred despite increased efforts by the United States to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s 17-year war.

Based on reporting by dpa and AP

Kabul Fire Kills Three, Injures Dozens

Afghan firefighters work at a site after a building caught fire late last night at a petrol station in Charahi Abdul Haq in Kabul on January 4.

An Afghan official says an overnight fire that began at a gas station in the Afghan capital and spread to a nearby apartment complex has killed three people and injured 44 others.

Health Ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayer said six people were in critical condition in hospital.

The Interior Ministry said the fire started at the gas station around 23:00 on January 3 and spread to a nearby apartment building in Kabul's Macroyan neighborhood.

The ministry said police were investigating the cause of the fire.

Mohammad Salam Almas, a Kabul police official, said 43 apartments and seven vehicles were burnt in the fire.

In November, a massive fire destroyed hundreds of stores at a big electronics market in the center of Kabul.

Despite incinerating entire businesses and leaving a scene of destruction, no casualties were reported from the fire.

But the damage to property was in the millions of dollars.

With reporting by AP

Trump 'Evaluating' Whether To Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan

FILE: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the press as leaves the White House (October 2018).

U.S. President Donald Trump is in the "process of evaluating" whether to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan, said Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence's remarks came amid reports that Trump had ordered the Pentagon to prepare for the withdrawal of 7,000 American troops deployed in Afghanistan, about half of the U.S. contingent in the country.

"Well, the president is in the process of evaluating that, as we speak," Pence told Fox News during an interview broadcast on January 3.

His remarks came a day after Trump urged other countries, specifically Russia, Pakistan, and India, to become more involved in the fighting in Afghanistan as he argued against continued long-term presence of U.S. troops in the war-torn country.

“Why isn’t Russia there? Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there?” Trump said in televised comments to reporters during a cabinet meeting on January 2. “Why are we there and we’re 6,000 miles away?”

Many observers have warned that the partial withdrawal could further degrade security and jeopardize possible peace talks with the Taliban aimed at ending its 17-year insurgency.

U.S. forces make up the bulk of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission that is training and advising Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) militants.

The U.S. military also has some 7,000 troops deployed in a separate U.S. counterterrorism mission.

Based on reporting by Fox News

U.S. Army Chief Of Staff Visits Kabul For Talks With Afghan Leaders

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley (file photo)

U.S. General Mark Milley, chief of staff of the army, visited Kabul for talks with Afghan leaders, according to the Afghan president's office.

A statement released by President Ashraf Ghani's office said the two sides met on January 3 and discussed U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and U.S. support for an Afghan-led peace process with Taliban militants.

Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh and Defense Minister Asadullah Khaled attended the meeting.

General Scott Miller, the top NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was also present.

The meeting came amid U.S. attempts to encourage negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government to end the 17-year war.

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held at least three rounds of talks with Taliban officials in recent months, although the militants have refused to talk directly to the Afghan government.

The peace efforts come amid reports of a possible drawdown in the estimated 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan currently leading a NATO effort to train and advise local troops.

With reporting by AP

At Least 11 Afghan Police Officers Killed In Taliban Attacks

FILE: Afghan soldiers patrolling a rural region in Baghlan Province.

Afghan officials say at least 11 police officers were killed after Taliban militants attacked two security checkpoints in the country's north.

The attacks occurred on the outskirts of Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan Province, late on January 2.

Baghlan Governor Abdulhai Nemati said the two checkpoints were destroyed in the hours-long clashes that lasted until early on January 3.

The attack also wounded two other police officers, said Safdar Mooseni, the head of the provincial council.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghanistan, where it is waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government and government security forces.

The attacks came amid reports of a possible drawdown in the estimated 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan currently leading a NATO effort to train and advise local troops.

Based on reporting by AP, dpa, and Khaama

Afghan Court Sentences Three Men In BBC Journalist Murder Case

Ahmad Shah was killed last April.

An Afghan court has convicted three men for their alleged involvement in the murder of a BBC journalist last year, officials say.

A primary court in the Bagram district of the central Parwan Province, where the accused are imprisoned, sentenced one of the men to death, the Attorney General's Office said on January 3.

The two other defendants were handed jail terms of 30 and six years.

Afghan journalist Ahmad Shah was shot dead on April 30, 2018, while he was on his way home in Khost Province, south of Kabul.

The Taliban at the time denied responsibility for the attack.

No details on those convicted or the motive for the crime were immediately available.

The case has been now been sent to a higher court to validate the tribunal's ruling, according to the Attorney General's Office.

Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest place for journalists in 2018, with 13 reporters and two media workers killed in the country over the year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

New Acting Defense Chief Takes Over At Pentagon

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, sits next to Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on January 2.

Patrick Shanahan has taken over the helm of the Pentagon, as U.S. President Donald Trump attacked his Defense Department predecessor, pointing to what he said was a lack of success in Afghanistan.

Shanahan, who has been serving as deputy defense secretary, worked his first day in office as acting defense secretary on January 2 as the replacement for Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense chief on December 20, saying his policies were not fully “aligned” with the president.

Trump has not specified a time frame for choosing a permanent defense secretary or said whether Shanahan could potentially assume that role.

Mattis initially said he would be leaving the Pentagon at the end of February. But Trump later announced that Mattis, 68, would be leaving earlier after the defense secretary published a letter that directly criticized the president.

In televised remarks on January 2, Trump said he “essentially fired” Mattis. "I'm not happy with what [he has] done in Afghanistan -- and I shouldn't be happy," said Trump, as Shanahan sat by his side.

"I wish him well. I hope he does well. But as you know, President [Barack] Obama fired him, and essentially so did I. I want results."

A former Marine general, Mattis was fired by Obama in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command over what the then-president said were too hawkish views toward Iran.

Shanahan, 56, meanwhile, said his priorities would include the impending U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and countering China’s military might.

"While we are focused on ongoing operations, Acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember: China, China, China," a Pentagon official said.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

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