Afghan Taliban leader backs peace talks with Kabul officials

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The reclusive Afghan Taliban leader has backed peace talks with the Kabul government, saying in a rare message distributed to media Wednesday that the goal of these efforts is an "end to occupation" by foreign forces.

Mullah Mohammad Omar's message was released ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the statement, he also urged Muslim leaders of the world to unite and pledged to continue holy war, or jihad, until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

He made no specific mention of the first face-to-face Kabul-Taliban talks that were hosted by Pakistan earlier this month. The talks, supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives, were said to have made progress, with the two sides agreeing to work on confidence-building measures and hold more such meetings after Ramadan. The talks came after several informal contacts between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives, most recently in Qatar and Norway.

But during and immediately after the July 7 meeting near Islamabad, it was not clear whether the Taliban representatives who attended had the green light from Mullah Omar or the insurgents' political office in Qatar, which was specifically set up to work toward a peace deal. Also, there have been differences among the Taliban over the talks in the past.

Wednesday's message appeared to be Mullah Omar's endorsement.

"The objective behind our political endeavors as well as contacts and interactions with countries of the world and our own Afghans is to bring an end to the occupation and to establish an independent Islamic system in our country," Mullah Omar said.

Ousted from power by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban soon regrouped as an insurgency battling NATO troops and Afghan security forces. After the war began, Mullah Omar went into hiding and has not been seen in public since. The United States has offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture.

Though the Taliban are divided among rival factions, Mullah Omar continues to enjoy the loyalty of many local figures. In the wake of the departure of NATO combat forces at the end of last year, the Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan troops, which are now in charge of security in the country.

Some of the Afghan insurgents have also recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Mullah Omar made no reference to the IS affiliates in Afghanistan or beyond but demanded that all in the "Muslim world maintain unity and fraternity among themselves and not allow internal differences to weaken their ranks."

Also Wednesday, 13 Afghan civilians were wounded by a roadside bomb that was detonated by remote control in northern Faryab province, according to Baryalai Basheryar, deputy provincial police chief.

Late Tuesday night, five Afghan civilians were shot and killed by insurgents in Zabul province, said the provincial police chief, Mirwais Noorzai. Later, clashes between police and the Taliban at a checkpoint in the province left one policeman and one insurgent dead, he said. Three civilians were wounded in that attack, Noorzai added.