KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan president inaugurated the country's new parliament on Friday, almost six months since elections were held and following long delays, unresolved disputes and political bickering.
The ceremony came as the Defense Ministry said the military had stormed a Taliban-run jail in southern Zabul province, freeing 53 captives held by the insurgents.
The two developments underscore the myriad troubles authorities face in Afghanistan, from political turmoil to a resurgent Taliban who now control nearly half the country.
The Taliban stage near-daily attacks and though they are negotiating with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is trying to find a peaceful resolution to the 17-year war, they refuse to talk directly to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government.
Talks that were to start last week in Qatar between the Taliban and an array of prominent Afghans, including government officials and opposition representatives, were scuttled after a falling-out between the two sides over who should attend.
Friday's inauguration of the new parliament brought together the lower, legislative 249-seat chamber and the appointed 104-member upper house.
Ghani, in his address, expressed regret over the delays and the fact that 33 seats for lawmakers from the districts in central Kabul province were empty because the election commission still has not announced results for those districts. He blamed what he said was the "inefficiency of former election commission members" who have since been replaced.
Parliamentary elections last October were marred by bombings and attacks on polling stations that killed 27 civilians and 11 policemen. Also, there was no voting in Ghazni province, overwhelmingly under Taliban control. Ghazni is for the moment represented by lawmakers elected nine years ago, until balloting can be held there.
The elections left the country deeply divided amid allegations of widespread fraud. With U.S. help, a "unity government" was formed with Ghani as president and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.
But the two disagreed constantly over appointments and strategy. In the latest dispute, Abdullah has said he won't attend next week's Loya Jirga — the traditional, 2,500-member council of elders. The gathering is meant to map out the government's position in peace talks with the Taliban.
In his parliament speech, Ghani dismissed allegations that he had interfered and caused some of the delays surrounding the release of election results. He added that he would remain president until the upcoming presidential election Sept. 28. Like Ghani, Abdullah is also running for president.
As for peace talks with the Taliban, Ghani reassured lawmakers there would be no negotiations or a peace deal unless it was backed by parliament and unless the government delegation at the talks included Afghan women, youth groups and clerics.
In the raid on the Taliban-run jail in Zabul province's Daychopan district on Thursday night, the defense ministry said eight insurgents were killed. Among the 53 freed captives were four Afghan commandos and four policemen. The rest were civilians, it said.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.