By Jibran Ahmed and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
PESHAWAR, Pakistan/KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban officials said on Saturday the killing of the brother of their leader in a bomb attack would not derail talks with the United States aimed at securing the withdrawal of U.S. troops after 18 years of war.
There was no claim of responsibility for the bomb that killed the younger brother of Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada near the Pakistani city of Quetta on Friday.
It came after both Taliban and U.S. officials have reported progress in talks on an agreement centred on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban security guarantee.
“If someone thinks martyring our leaders would stop us from our goal they’re living in a fool’s paradise,” a Taliban leader said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“We are close to our goals,” he said, referring to the talks with the United States. He declined to be identified.
The militants have been fighting to expel foreign forces and set up an Islamic state since they were ousted in October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Both U.S. negotiators and the Taliban have reported progress after eight rounds of talks since late last year but the violence has not eased.
The bomb at the mosque near Quetta killed four people, and wounded 20, Pakistani police said.
The Taliban leader’s brother, Hafiz Ahmadullah, was leading prayers when it exploded. One of the leader’s sons was wounded, Taliban officials said.
Pakistani police confirmed that one of the dead was identified as Hafiz Ahmadullah but said they could not confirm if he was a brother of the Taliban leader. Pakistan denies accusations that it supports the Taliban but many members live there.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, a suicide bomber attacked a Saturday night wedding reception. An interior ministry spokesman said there were tens of casualties, both wounded and dead.
There was no claim of responsibility.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire for a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan and an end to America’s longest war. Top U.S. national security advisers briefed Trump on Friday on the negotiations.
There are deep concerns among Afghan officials and U.S. national security aides about the talks led by U.S. special representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who updated Trump.
A U.S. pullout has raised fears Afghanistan could plunge into a new civil war that could see a return of Taliban rule and give international militants a sanctuary.
Under the expected deal, the Taliban, in exchange for a U.S. commitment on a withdrawal, would guarantee Afghanistan would not be a sanctuary for militants to expand and plot new attacks, both sides have said.
The Taliban are also expected to make a commitment to open power-sharing talks with the U.S.-backed government and agree to a ceasefire.
Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told a news briefing any deal had to include a ceasefire and a U.S. withdrawal would be based on conditions.
A second Taliban official, speaking from Doha, where the Taliban have a political office and where the talks have been held, said preparations were being made for a meaningful final round.
“We’ve solved most issues,” said the official, who also declined to be identified.
No date has been set for more talks.
The Taliban were considering a ceasefire in places from which U.S. forces withdraw, the second official said.
Some 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan security forces and conducting counterinsurgency operations.
The war has ground into a stalemate with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.
(Additonal reporting by Orooj Hakimi in KABUL; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Powell and Marguerita Choy)