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Prison raid mars relative calm in Afghanistan after ceasefire

Afghan soldiers arrive during an attack on a prison in Jalalabad. At least 29 people have been killed in fighting at the jail, which houses 1,700 Islamic State and Taliban inmates
Afghan soldiers arrive during an attack on a prison in Jalalabad. At least 29 people have been killed in fighting at the jail, which houses 1,700 Islamic State and Taliban inmates

JALALABAD (AFGHANISTAN) – At least 29 people have been killed in a raid on an Afghan prison claimed by the Islamic State group, officials said Monday, as the country waited to see if a government ceasefire with the Taliban would rupture after its formal expiration.

Fighting was still raging at the jail in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where some 1,700 IS and Taliban inmates were being held.

IS’s news outlet Amaq said its fighters were behind the raid, which saw hundreds of inmates escape before many of them were recaptured.

The ongoing attack was Afghanistan’s most violent incident since the Taliban and Afghan security forces held a three-day ceasefire over the Eid al-Adha festival which ended Sunday.

IS was not part of that truce which Afghan authorities hope will pave the way for peace talks with the Taliban as soon as this week.

Under a deal signed by the Taliban and the United States in February, the “intra-Afghan” talks were slated to start in March, but were delayed amid political infighting in Kabul and as an agreed prisoner swap dragged on.

Both Kabul and the Taliban have signalled they could be ready to start talks after Eid, and the Afghan government on Sunday offered to extend the ceasefire.

The insurgents have not formally responded.

– Prisoner release –

The biggest hurdle to talks starting is a contentious prisoner swap stipulated under the US-Taliban deal.

Under the exchange, Kabul is meant to free around 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for 1,000 Afghan security personnel held captive by the insurgents.

The National Security Council said Sunday that more than 4,900 inmates have been freed, and the Taliban last week said they had already met their side of the commitment.

Afghan authorities however have refused to free hundreds of Taliban inmates accused of serious crimes.

A gathering of Afghan elders will decide their fate on August 7 in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said.

The rare respite from violence over Eid gave some Afghans the opportunity to safely visit relatives after long periods apart.

“I managed to visit my village for the first time in two years,” said Khalil Ahmad from volatile Uruzgan province.

“There were many Taliban checkposts on the way, but they did not bother anyone.”

But in the northern province of Kunduz on Monday, any sense of calm felt short-lived.

One resident, Atiqullah, who only uses one name, said that while there had been no attacks on Monday, rumours were circulating that the Taliban were regrouping around Kunduz city.

“Today, you see that familiar fear in people’s faces again and I am more careful not to leave home today unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he told AFP.

– Ongoing attack –

In Jalalabad, Nangarhar governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP that gunman remained holed up at the prison a day after the raid began.

He said 29 people had been killed so far, though the toll was expected to rise.

Khogyani said special forces had so far cleared four floors of a five-storey building outside the prison where several attackers had been holed up since Sunday night.

The raid came a day after the country’s intelligence agency announced the killing of a top IS commander near Jalalabad.

Assadullah Orakzai was involved in several deadly attacks against Afghan security forces, the National Director of Security said Saturday.

Nangarhar province has seen some deadly IS attacks this year including a May 12 suicide bomb that killed 32 mourners at a funeral for a police commander.

The IS attacks continue despite government officials claiming last year that the group’s Afghan branch had been completely defeated in Nangarhar.

Some local officials have, however, cautioned that elements of the group remained.

The province provided IS with its first foothold in the country in 2015.

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