Kabul (AFP)

Two Afghan television workers were killed on Saturday by a roadside bomb in Kabul, shortly after the government said it was ready to start negotiations with the Taliban.

"An economic journalist and the driver of the minibus died when the vehicle carrying 15 employees of Khurshid TV was struck," Jawed Farhad, the director of the private television station, told AFP.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, according to Site Intelligence Group, which tracks the activities of the jihadists.

A rare three-day ceasefire, initiated by the Taliban and ending on Tuesday, has reduced violence across the country. Insurgents have since resumed attacks against Afghan forces, but with less intensity than usual.

On Saturday evening, the government announced that it had released 710 new Taliban prisoners since Friday, in a process that will see 2,000 released from prison in exchange for the ceasefire. 900 Taliban had already been released Tuesday by the authorities.

Insurgents said they were not responsible for the explosion on Saturday, which has so far not been claimed.

The government has condemned an "odious" attack, according to a press release.

A few hours before the attack, the government official in charge of talks, Abdullah Abdullah, announced that his team was ready to start peace negotiations with the Taliban "at any time".

"The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners set the stage for a good start," he said at a press conference.

Abdullah, who heads a council in charge of negotiations set up by Kabul, said, however, that a new ceasefire should be put in place during the negotiations.

According to the Interior Ministry, Saturday's attack targeted Kurshid TV.

"An attack on journalists is an attack on freedom of expression (...) The Afghan government is seriously investigating," said Feroz Bashari, a government spokesperson.

Six other employees of the chain were injured, he added.

It was the second attack on Khurshid TV employees in less than a year.

In August 2019, two passers-by were killed in the unclaimed explosion of a magnetic mine, or "sticky bomb", attached to a chain minibus.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, who have to cover the war and are sometimes targeted themselves.

- A "united" government -

The reduction in Taliban violence is raising timid hopes as the peace process seems to be on the brink.

The insurgents had indeed intensified their offensives against the Afghan forces since the signature, at the end of February in Doha, of an American-Taliban agreement which envisages the departure of all the foreign American troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021. In return, the Taliban made commitments to fight terrorism, and promised to open unprecedented direct peace negotiations with the Kabul government.

Kabul has also helped advance the process by releasing hundreds of prisoners recently.

The insurgents indeed demand the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 members of the Afghan forces before the opening of negotiations.

These discussions were scheduled to start on March 10, but were postponed.

Abdullah has been appointed head of a negotiating council in an agreement to resolve a dispute with his rival, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Arriving second during the presidential election in September 2019, tainted with fraud charges, Mr. Abdullah had declared himself the winner, plunging the country into a political crisis.

Matin Bek, a member of the government's negotiating team, said that taking up Abdullah was a step forward. "We were accused of not being united, now we are," he told AFP, adding that his team met every week.

"Due to recent events, we expect the process to start sometime in June," he added.

The opening of these talks is part of the conditions enshrined in the agreement signed between the insurgents and Washington for the withdrawal of foreign troops within 14 months.

© 2020 AFP