Feb 7, 9:15 AM EST

Afghanistan hopes for talks with Taliban this month



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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan expects to hold direct talks with the Taliban by the end of this month, an official said Sunday.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shakib Mostaghani told reporters that Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States agreed on a roadmap toward peace talks at a meeting in Islamabad the day before. He said the government hopes to "put an end to the futile violence which is imposed on our people."

The last direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban broke down after just one session last summer when Kabul announced that the Taliban's reclusive, longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died two years earlier.

The next four-country meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Kabul. The Taliban are not taking part in those negotiations, which aim to lay the groundwork for peace talks.

The Afghan government has long accused Pakistan of granting the insurgents safe haven across the porous border, charges denied by Islamabad. But Pakistan is widely believed to have influence over the Taliban and is seen as a key player in any peace efforts.

Afghan forces have struggled to fight off the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO officially ended their combat mission at the end of 2014. The insurgents have spread their footprint across the country, leading to high casualties among Afghan forces and fear among the population.

The Taliban fractured last summer after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, with senior figures accusing his deputy-turned-successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, of deceiving them by speaking in his name. The infighting appears to have died down in recent weeks, with many top commanders publicly accepting Mansoor's leadership. A unified front would allow the insurgents to speak with one voice in future talks.

Despite the recent diplomatic efforts, the war shows no sign of abating.

A roadside bomb targeting judges in the eastern city of Puli Alam killed a policeman on Sunday and wounded eight people, including four senior judges, said Salim Saleh, spokesman for the Logar provincial governor. No one claimed the attack.

In the northern Sari Pul province, a former local militia commander was killed by a remotely detonated bomb on Sunday, said Zabi Amani, spokesman for the provincial governor. Four people, including three of the commander's bodyguards and a young boy, were wounded, he said.

In Kunar province, on the border with Pakistan, the bodies of three health workers involved in vaccinating Afghan children against polio were found late Saturday, almost two weeks after they went missing in Ghaziabad district, said the governor's spokesman Abdul Ghani Musamim.

Polio, a debilitating disease easily prevented with vaccinations, is endemic in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Islamic militants have targeted vaccination efforts in both countries based on conspiracy theories that they are a cover for a Western-led sterilization campaign.

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