At least 11 people were killed and dozens injured in the bombing of a bus in Afghanistan's southern Zabul province, officials said on Monday. The attack came as the Taliban and the Afghan governent said they would observe a three-day ceasefire for the Muslim religious holiday of Eid, starting this week.
The blast took place late on Sunday night, said Zabul's provincial governor's spokesman Gul Islam Sial, adding that 25 people were injured including women and children who were in critical condition.
Violence in the country has been rising sharply in recent weeks after the US announced it would withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11.
The bus bombing in Zabul province along Kabul-Kandahar highway came as the insurgent Taliban announced late on Sunday they would declare a three-day ceasefire for the religious holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr later this week.
The Afghan government reciprocated with a truce offer, as it has in the past. But in a statement released Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went further, urging the Taliban to announce a permanent truce to end the bloody war.
The ceasefire announcement came as the US continues to pull out its last 2,500 troops from the violence-wracked country despite faltering peace efforts between the Taliban and Afghan government to end a decades-long war.
"Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are instructed to halt all offensive operations against the enemy countrywide from the first till the third day of Eid," a statement released by the Taliban said.
"But if the enemy conducts any assault or attack against you during these days, stand ready to robustly protect and defend yourselves and your territory," it added.
Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the holiday begins according to the sighting of the new moon. The Taliban declared similar ceasefires last year to mark Islamic holidays.
Taliban blamed for school attack
The ceasefire offer came after the government blamed the Taliban for Saturday's attack outside a girls' school in Dasht-e-Barchi, a suburb of the capital largely populated by the Shiite Hazara community, which is often targeted by extremist Sunni Islamist militants.
A series of blasts outside the school – when residents were shopping ahead of the holiday – killed more than 50 people and wounded over 100.
It was the deadliest attack in more than a year.
The Taliban, who denied responsibility, had earlier issued a statement saying the nation needed to "safeguard and look after educational centres and institutions".
On Sunday, relatives buried the dead at a hilltop site known as "Martyrs Cemetery", where victims of attacks against the Hazara community are laid to rest.
Hazaras are Shiite Muslims and considered heretics by extremist Sunnis. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Afghan population.
Bodies in wooden coffins were lowered into graves one by one by mourners still in a state of shock and fear, an AFP photographer said.
"I rushed to the scene (after the blasts) and found myself in the middle of bodies, their hands and heads cut off and bones smashed," said Mohammad Taqi, a resident of Dasht-e-Barchi, whose two daughters were students at the school but escaped the attack.
"All of them were girls. Their bodies piled on top of each other."
Books and school bags belonging to the victims still lay scattered at the site of the attack.
The Taliban insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year, when they signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for peace talks and withdrawal of the remaining US troops.
But the group has clashed daily with Afghan forces in the rugged countryside even as the US military reduces its presence.
Taliban chief warns US
The US was supposed to have pulled all forces out by May 1 as agreed with the Taliban last year, but Washington pushed back the date to September 11 – a move that angered the insurgents.
The leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, reiterated in a message released ahead of Eid that any delay in withdrawing the troops was a "violation" of that deal.
"If America again fails to live up to its commitments, then the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all the consequences," Akhundzada warned in Sunday's message.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has declared a day of national mourning for Tuesday.
"This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and the girls' school," he said in a statement.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)