By Ayaz Gul
Officials in Afghanistan say a bomb explosion Friday killed at least 15 civilians, most of them children, in eastern Ghazni province.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said that explosives were packed in a three-wheel rickshaw, parked near a ceremony in Gilan district, where the Muslim holy book Quran was being recited at the time.
The powerful blast also wounded at least 20 people, he added. Most of the victims of Friday’s blast were said to be under 18 years old.
It was not immediately known who placed the rickshaw near the event.
But the Taliban, which controls large parts of Ghazni, asserted that the blast was caused by “unexploded ordnance” and 12 children were among those killed.
The insurgent group said in a statement the victims were “selling unexploded shells” when the incident occurred. It advised area residents to stay clear of such activities.
Afghanistan remains in the grip of deadly violence that has claimed scores of lives in recent days, including Afghan government forces, Taliban fighters and civilians.
The bloodshed comes even as the Afghan government and the Taliban have been engaged in peace talks since September to negotiate a political power-sharing deal and a nationwide cease-fire to end the country’s grinding 19-year war.
The two negotiating teams have taken a break from December 14 to January 5 for internal deliberations.
The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue stems from a troop withdrawal pact the United States sealed with the Taliban in February, requiring all American and allied troops to leave the country by May 2021.
The agreement has reduced the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to 4,500 and another 2,000 of them are expected to return home by mid-January.
In return, the Taliban pledged to break ties with al-Qaida and prevent transnational terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to launch international attacks. It has also promised to seek a political settlement to the country’s long conflict through ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations.
The Trump administration has been pressing the Afghan rivals to move quickly toward a political settlement to end the country’s long war.
U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday held a rare meeting with leaders of the Taliban in Qatar where the insurgent group maintains its political office.
Milley traveled to Kabul on Wednesday and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“The most important part of the discussions I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for a reduction in violence,” Milley told reporters traveling with him. “Everything else hinges on that.”