ISLAMABAD (AP) -- The Taliban announced they won't carry out military operations in Afghanistan for three days during the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Adha that starts this weekend.
In a statement Tuesday promising a brief respite to the fighting, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said commanders have been ordered not to carry out operations for three days but are allowed to defend themselves.
The statement also said Taliban fighters are not to fraternize with Afghan security forces and neither side is to cross into the other's territory.
The Afghan government welcomed the Taliban announcement and presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said Afghan security forces were also ordered to cease attacks and only return fire.
In a tweet Wednesday, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the cease-fire and said “our hope is this Eid brings all Afghans together in understanding & mutual respect and one step closer to a sustainable peace.”
The Taliban cease-fire follows a conciliatory message by leader Maulvi Hibatullah Akhunzada earlier Tuesday to mark the Muslim holiday. Both communiques come as Khalilzad returns to the region to try and jump-start negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In his Eid message, Akhundzada said the Taliban don't seek to monopolize power in a future political makeup of Afghanistan. He also said they support education for all and are abiding by the peace deal signed with the U.S. in February. The lengthy message repeatedly references an Islamic government the Taliban seek to establish, without elaborating how it would be different.
Khalilzad was expected in the Afghan capital of Kabul, as well as in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office. He was also expected in Islamabad, but there was some question about whether Pakistan was still part of his itinerary.
The U.S.-Taliban deal signed Feb. 29 was touted as the best hope for peace in Afghanistan after decades of war. While the U.S. and NATO have already begun reducing their troop strength, the second phase of the deal — which calls for talks between the Taliban and the Kabul political leadership — has been delayed. Much of the delays have been as a result of Kabul's reluctance to free several hundred of the Taliban prisoners identified for release as part of the agreement.
Kabul had claimed those Taliban prisoners were hardened criminals, guilty of major crimes.
But on Tuesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was ready to free the remainder of the prisoners, without specifying why the change of heart or if an agreement had been reached with the Taliban to substitute some of them, a proposal the Taliban earlier rejected.
Under the deal, Kabul is to release 5,000 Taliban and the insurgents had promised to free 1,000 government and military personnel. So far, Kabul has freed bout 4,000 and the Taliban nearly 800.
“With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban in a week's time," said Ghani in the Afghan capital Kabul.
Ghani also called for a permanent cease-fire but the Taliban have consistently said they were ready to negotiate a cease-fire in the talks with Kabul — whenever they begin — and accused the Afghan government of attacking the Taliban in their homes.
Last week, the Taliban announced they were ready for talks with Afghanistan's political leadership after the Eid al-Adha holiday, providing the last of the Taliban prisoners had been freed by then. The announcement followed one of the most significant shakeups in the Taliban in years.
The Taliban have stuck to their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops, but have carried out scores of attacks on Afghan military targets. The United States would like to see those attacks reduced or stopped.
“The Islamic Emirate has fulfilled its obligations regarding signing an agreement with the United States ... and efforts toward launching intra-Afghan negotiations," said Akhunzada. “It is now up to the other parties to determine how they utilize this opportunity.”
The Taliban, whose regime was ousted in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion, said they would allow girls to go to school and women to work, should they return to power. Under a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, girls were not allowed to go to school and women were barred from working.