Peace activists marching through Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan against decades of war have been detained by members of the armed group.
Dozens of participants in the so-called People’s Peace Movement walk set out last week from Lashkar Gah, provincial capital of southwestern Helmand province, headed for Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold more than 100km away.
The activists, whose march started during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, have called for peace in Afghanistan, which has been beset by war for nearly two decades, and a ceasefire over the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which started on Tuesday.
Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s leader, rejected pleas for a cessation of hostilities, however.
Two supporters of the peace movement told AFP news agency on Tuesday that Taliban fighters detained about 25 marchers the day before, sparing only a few older members.
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The move came after the armed group forced four walkers to accompany them in vehicles on Sunday as they crossed into Taliban territory in the south of the country, said Abdul Malik Hamdard, a peace march supporter.
“Initially [the Taliban] told us that ‘we will talk to them’ … [but] we have had no news from them since then,” Hamdard said.
Bacha Khan Mawladad, another member of the peace march, confirmed to dpa news agency that four people were taken by the armed group on Sunday for “discussions”.
The Taliban on Tuesday released photos of the four marchers, including its leader Iqbal Khyber, and said the men were safe and would not be harmed.
The armed group previously accused the People’s Peace Movement, which attracted international attention during a march across Afghanistan last year, of being financed by the central government in Kabul, an allegation the activists denied.
Years of bloodshed
The Taliban launched an insurgency in Afghanistan shortly after it was dislodged from power in 2001 following a US-led invasion.
A series of diplomatic talks held between US and Taliban negotiators have yet to produce any peace deal, despite both sides suggesting some progress had been made. The two sides are at loggerheads over the timeline for a withdrawal of foreign troops in Afghanistan, among other things.
About 17,000 foreign troops, including some 14,000 US soldiers, are based in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces also carry out “counterterrorism” operations.
Washington has said it will not agree to any withdrawal of troops until the Taliban put in place security guarantees, implement a ceasefire, and sign off on other commitments including an “intra-Afghan” dialogue with the US-backed Kabul government.
But the Taliban insists it will not do any of these until the US announces a withdrawal timeline. It refuses to negotiate with Kabul, calling the Afghan government a “puppet” of the West.
Amid the back-and-forth, attacks in Afghanistan continue unabated with civilians often bearing the brunt of the bloodshed.
According to the United Nations, almost 4,000 civilians – including more than 900 children – were killed in the country last year, with more than 7,000 others wounded. It was the deadliest year on record.
A new round of US-Taliban talks aimed at ending the nearly two-decades-long war will take place later this month in Qatar, the US State Department said on Saturday.
Al Jazeera and news agencies