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May 4, 12:04 PM EDT

Taliban kill 17 Afghans even as they 'welcome' peace push


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban militants who have been waging war on the Afghan government for more than a decade on Monday expressed a willingness to soften their position on a range of issues, an apparent shift that could eventually lead to peace talks.

But despite those positive signs following two days of informal talks in Qatar, a wave of Taliban attacks targeting police checkpoints late Sunday night in the remote Afghan province of Badakhshan, killed at least 16 policemen. The insurgents said in a statement to media that the assaults were part of their annual spring offensive, which began late last month.

And on Monday morning, a Taliban suicide bomber struck a bus carrying government workers in the capital, Kabul, killing one person and wounding 13. The Taliban also claimed responsibility for that bombing.

The attacks underscored just how elusive peace is after decades of war in this Central Asian country.

During the informal discussions between Afghan government representatives and those of the Taliban in Qatar, both sides emphasized that peace talks were not on the agenda.

The Taliban have so far ignored calls from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for the group to join the government. However, their statement following Qatar meetings indicated flexibility on previously intractable issues such as the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and acceptance of a constitution.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again as a policy clearly states that it does not want to harm others and also won't allow anyone to use Afghan soil against others," it said, using the group's formal name.

The statement said that "for the happiness of the nation" the group wants "cooperation in all sectors with all countries, including neighbors, and welcomes the efforts of anyone in bringing peace to Afghanistan."

The Taliban launched their annual warm-weather offensive on April 24 with an attack on the northern city of Kunduz, which took the government and military by surprise.

Nevertheless, an Afghan official familiar with both sides in the Qatar discussions, said that "in spite of the fierce fighting and very bad situation here, the tone from both sides is positive."

"It is a good starting point. We will ask them to go ahead prudently and wisely to find a political solution rather than intensify military activity, which is causing the loss of innocent life," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because details of the discussions have not been made public.

Ghani has made peace a priority since taking office in September, though previous efforts to start a dialogue stalled, largely due the lack of trust and confidence between the two sides.

In referring repeatedly to the Taliban as "political opponents," Ghani has signaled his own willingness to accommodate their "political, economic, cultural and social viewpoints, making it possible to come to direct negotiations," said the Afghan official familiar with the Doha discussions.

The Taliban statement referred to "ground realities" - that after more than 10 years of insurgency, they have not been defeated despite having fought Afghan and international forces to a stalemate.

With the departure of international combat troops at the end of 2014, Afghan forces are now fighting alone on fronts across the country and taking huge casualties.

Direct negotiations are still some years off, analysts have said. Basic logistical issues - such as removal of Taliban names from international travel black lists and the establishment of an office - still need to be addressed, the Taliban's spokesman in Qatar, Muhammad Naeem, said.

But the Afghan official said that the "Qatar meeting was beneficial for the crisis in Afghanistan to be ended. All sides expressed their views very widely and clearly. These viewpoints can encourage us toward formal meetings in the future."

In Kabul, lawmaker Nilofer Ibrahimi said Monday that 13 of the policemen killed in attacks on checkpoints in Badakhshan province were members of border police units, while the three others were public protection officers.

Ibrahimi, who represents Badakhshan in the parliament, said that seven policemen were still missing following the attacks.

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Associated Press writer Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this story.

Follow Lynne O'Donnell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lynnekodonnell

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