AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN

Taliban announces start of its annual spring offensive

Taliban announces its annual spring offensive will start Friday, vows to safeguard civilians

The Taliban movement in Afghanistan announced Wednesday that it will launch its annual spring offensive later in the week.

In a statement issued on its website, Afghanistan’s largest armed opposition group said this year’s offensive will be called Azm, or Resolute, and will begin on Friday.

As in recent years, the group said the principal targets of its operations will be “the foreign occupiers,” which are primarily U.S. troops, with an emphasis on attacking permanent military bases, intelligence units and diplomatic centers.

The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban referred to as a “stooge regime,” also will be a primary target, the statement said.

Afghanistan’s harsh winters usually curtail fighting each year, with militant groups resuming operations in the spring.

Despite the Taliban’s insistence that it will focus on military and governmental targets, annual reports by international agencies have repeatedly accused the Taliban and other opposition groups of being behind the majority of civilian casualties in the country.

In a report issued this month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that civilian casualties from ground fighting rose by 8% in the first three months of 2015, compared with the same period last year.

The first quarter of 2015, the mission reported, saw 136 civilian deaths and 385 injuries as a result of ongoing battles between Afghan security forces and the armed opposition, including the Taliban. Of those, the armed opposition was said to be responsible for 73% of the casualties.

In Wednesday’s statement, the Taliban said its fighters will “execute their plans with great care and deliberation in all parts of the country ... [and] top priority will be given to safeguarding and protecting the lives and properties of the civilian people.”

The announcement of the offensive follows repeated statements by the Ghani administration in recent months that it was seeking to lay the groundwork for direct peace talks with the Taliban.

Talk of such negotiations has been more muted of late, as some Afghan officials have accused Islamic State of building up a presence in their country. The claim has been disputed by others, including Interior Minister Noorolhaq Olomi, who said fighters claiming to be with the movement based in Syria and Iraq are merely disgruntled or renamed Taliban.

"I have repeatedly said that only black flags have been raised and they are the same Taliban who have rebranded themselves,” he told the Afghan parliament last week.

A suicide bombing in Jalalabad on Saturday brought the issue of Islamic State's role in Afghanistan to the fore as competing sources claiming to represent the group first took responsibility for the attack and then denied its involvement. The attack killed 34 people and injured 125 others.

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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