KABUL - Afghanistan has struck a ceasefire deal with Taliban insurgents in a remote province, a presidential spokesman said on Monday, the first move of its kind amid an escalation of violence ahead of elections next month.
The truce was reached on Saturday in northwestern Badghis province, near the border with Turkmenistan, spokesman Seyamak Herawi said. The government wanted to make similar deals with the Taliban in other parts of the country in a bid to improve security for the August 20 presidential election, he said.
"As long as the ceasefire holds, the government does not have the intention to attack the Taliban (in Badghis). And the Taliban can also take part in the elections," Herawi told Reuters. Violence across Afghanistan this year reached its worst levels since the Taliban's austere Islamist government was ousted in 2001 and has escalated further since thousands of U.S. Marines began a major offensive in southern Helmand this month.
Attacks have been less frequent in remote Badghis compared with Taliban strongholds in the south and the east.
The Helmand offensive is the first major operation under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its militant allies and stabilize Afghanistan.
Obama and leaders in London also have spoken this year about the need to work with "moderate" Taliban elements. Britain has also backed Afghan government efforts to reintegrate Taliban insurgents who renounce violence.
FOREIGN TROOPS OUT
Former Taliban officials have been trying to mediate between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the insurgents since late last year, hoping eventually to arrange peace talks.
Before the Badghis deal the Taliban had repeatedly rejected such suggestions, saying they would continue their insurgency until all foreign troops had left Afghanistan. The Taliban were not immediately available for comment on Monday.
The truce was arranged after mediation between Taliban leaders in Badghis and tribal elders and other influential figures in the province, Herawi said.
Under the deal, the Taliban agreed not to attack election candidates in the province and to allow them to set up campaign offices. Karzai is a clear front-runner to win the election, Afghanistan's second direct vote for president.
Herawi said polling centers would be secured by government forces and the Taliban had also agreed not to target reconstruction projects in Badghis. He said the Taliban had not demanded any special conditions before striking the deal.
"This was a good experience ... and we want it to be implemented in other parts of the country," Herawi said.
(Editing by Paul Tait)