Inside the provincial governor’s compound, officials hosted dozens of Taliban fighters and hundreds of guests in a celebration Sunday of a temporary cease-fire that many hoped would be a precursor to peace talks in Afghanistan.
But the deadly violence Afghans have known for decades continued when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd that had gathered outside the compound in the eastern city of Jalalabad. At least 19 people were killed and 65 wounded, officials said.
The second bombing in as many days in Jalalabad raised the two-day death toll to 55, with 130 wounded, casting a pall over the Taliban truce and illustrating the challenges facing the Afghan government as it tries to pursue a peace process with militants.
No group immediately claimed Sunday’s bombing, but like Saturday’s, which also took place in Jalalabad, it was believed to be the work of fighters loyal to Islamic State, which was not part of the cease-fire. The group has a significant presence in Nangarhar province and has often clashed with the Taliban.
For its part, the Taliban said it would not extend the truce beyond Sunday despite appeals from the government and many Afghan civilians seeking a respite from violence.
After the Afghan government announced an eight-day cease-fire June 9 to mark the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, the Taliban announced its own three-day cessation of hostilities. It was the first time the group had done so since 2001, raising hopes that a respite in violence would serve as a confidence-building measure to jump-start long delayed peace talks with the government.
Over the weekend, purported Taliban fighters entered several Afghan cities and hugged civilians, government officials and soldiers in images that were shared widely on social media.
After a meeting of security officials, President Ashraf Ghani extended the government’s cease-fire for an additional 10 days. Earlier Sunday, the High Peace Council, the government body in charge of peace efforts, appealed to the Taliban to do the same.
“On behalf of the people and as a peace organization we call on you to say yes to the people’s demands and extend the cease-fire and prepare for direct talks,” the head of the council’s secretariat, Akram Khpalwak, told reporters in Kabul.
In a statement, the group said it had “successfully implemented a three-day cease-fire … for the well-being of the nation” but that beginning Monday its fighters would resume attacking the Afghan government and U.S.-led NATO coalition forces.
“Mujahideen throughout the country are ordered to continue their operations against the foreign invaders and their internal puppets as before,” the statement said.
The group said the cease-fire showed its forces were cohesive, dismissing reports that its leadership was fractured, and denied that its leaders had begun secret negotiations with the Afghan government. It reiterated demands for U.S.-led foreign troops to withdraw and said it wanted to negotiate directly with the United States, a request Washington has repeatedly denied.
The attacks in Jalalabad showed that even if the Taliban could be coaxed to the negotiating table, stopping Islamic State fighters remains a major challenge.
The group’s estimated few hundred militants have continued to carry out deadly attacks in population centers despite a lengthy U.S.-backed military campaign against its redoubts in Nangarhar province, along the Pakistani border.
The provincial governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, said of Sunday’s attack that nearly 1,000 elders, local officials and civilians had gathered to celebrate the cease-fire and urge both sides to make a peace deal.
Rahimullah, a 29-year-old farmer who goes by only one name, said he came to Jalalabad from an outlying district to show his support for peace and was waiting outside the governor’s compound when the bomb struck.
“I was very happy and expecting a peaceful celebration,” he said. “Suddenly there was a huge blast. I felt pain in my head then I noticed that shrapnel had hit my head and I was bleeding. Then I went unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I and many others were in the hospital.”