UPDATE 1-U.S., Taliban say Afghan peace effort discussed in video talks

(Updates with State Department statement)

KABUL, June 30 (Reuters) - The head of the Taliban's political office in Doha and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a video conference to discuss the Afghan peace process, the Islamist group and the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday, in a bid to remove hurdles in the path to peace talks.

Increasing violence and a contentious prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban have delayed talks that were to have begun in March between the insurgent group and a team mandated by Kabul.

On Twitter, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Monday's talks between the official, Mullah Baradar, and Pompeo discussed full implementation of the Doha accord and the withdrawal of foreign troops, as well as the release of prisoners, intra-Afghan talks and a reduction in fighting.

The Doha agreement, signed between the United States and Taliban in February, drew up plans for a withdrawal of foreign forces from the war-torn country in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgent group.

"Baradar once again reiterated that the Taliban are committed not to let anyone use Afghan soil (to launch attacks) against any country," Shaheen said.

Pompeo acknowledged the insurgent group had "lowered the war graph by not attacking cities and major military bases" but said more needed to be done by all parties, the spokesman added.

"The Secretary made clear the expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

The Baradar-Pompeo conference came amidst U.S. media reports that American intelligence had briefed President Donald Trump about Taliban-linked fighters collecting bounties from Russia to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The White House has said Trump did not receive a personal briefing on the issue but has yet to squarely address whether he had received a written briefing, whether he had read it, and why he had not responded more aggressively if he had.

Shaheen said Baradar told Pompeo the delay in talks was because the Afghan government did not release the agreed number of prisoners.

Kabul and some foreign countries have raised concerns about the release of about 200 prisoners they say are involved in major attacks in Afghanistan.

Since the Doha pact, Taliban fighters have launched 44 attacks and killed or wounded an average of 24 civilians each day, Javid Faisal, the spokesman for the Afghan national security adviser, said on Tuesday.

Baradar told Pompeo the increased attacks were because of provocation by the government in areas under Taliban control, Shaheen added. (Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis)

06/30/2020 18:57

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