Hibatullah Akhundzada strenuously favours political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan

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DOHA/MOSCOW: The Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada on Sunday said he "strenuously favours" a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, even as the hardline Islamist movement pursues a sweeping offensive across the nation.

The announcement came as representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents sat down for a new round of talks in Doha over the weekend, stirring hopes that the long-stalled peace talks were being resuscitated. "In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement in the country," Akhundzada said in a message released ahead of next week´s Muslim holiday of Eidul Azha.

"Every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security that presents itself will be made use of by the Islamic Emirate," he added. "We fully assure neighbouring, regional and world countries that Afghanistan will not permit anyone to pose a security threat to any other country using our soil."

For months, the two sides have been meeting on and off in the Qatari capital, but have achieved little if any notable success, with the discussions appearing to have lost momentum as the militants made enormous gains on the battlefield. The two sides were due to talk again on Sunday.

The Taliban leader said his group remained committed to forging a solution to end the war, but slammed "the opposition parties" for "wasting time". "Our message remains that instead of relying on foreigners, let us resolve our issues among ourselves and rescue our homeland from the prevailing crisis," he added.

The insurgents capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across large swathes of the country.

The group is now believed to control roughly half of the nation´s 400 districts, several important border crossings, and has laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals.

A spokesman for the Afghan security forces said that pro-government fighters had conducted 244 operations, killing 967 "enemy" fighters -- including key commanders. "We have recaptured 24 districts so far, our goal is to retake all the territories. We are ready to defend our country," Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters.

Questions remain over how firm a hand the Taliban´s leaders have with commanders on the ground, and whether they will be able to convince them to abide by a potential agreement if signed. The leader´s statement notably made no mention of a formal ceasefire call for the Eid holidays.

"This year we will not be slaughtering (animals). It´s because the situation of our country is not good. The fighting is ongoing. We are concerned," said Abdullah, a resident of Jalalabad in Afghanistan´s east. "People are poor and most of them are worried about the increase in violence."

Fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide, allowing for a complete Taliban military takeover or the start of a multi-sided civil war in a country awash with large stockpiles of weapons following nearly four decades of fighting.

President Vladimir Putin in June offered US counterpart Joe Biden the use of Russian military bases in Central Asia (CA) for information gathering from Afghanistan, the Kommersant newspaper reported on Saturday, as American troops leave the country.

Taliban fighters have made major advances as US forces pull out after 20 years of war, a security headache for Moscow which fears refugees may be pushed into its Central Asian backyard and its southern defensive flank destabilised, reported British wire service.

In a rare offer during a period of frosty relations between Washington and Moscow, Putin proposed at June 16 talks with Biden in Geneva that they coordinate on Afghanistan and put Russia's bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to "practical use", Kommersant reported, citing sources.

The newspaper said this could involve the exchange of information obtained using drones but that there had been no concrete response from the US side. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, British wire service reported that the Biden administration was in talks with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan about temporarily taking in thousands of Afghans who worked with US forces and now face threats from the Taliban, citing three sources familiar with the matter.

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