The Afghan government’s negotiating team is ready to begin long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani announced in a message Sunday marking the Muslim holiday of Ramadan Bayram, or also known as Eid al-Fitr. Flanked by his top aides outside the presidential palace’s mosque, Ghani welcomed the Taliban’s unexpected three-day truce declaration for the holiday. “The winner of peace will be the Afghan people, war brings destruction and misery, especially to the Afghan women who suffer the most,” he said, directing government forces to reciprocate the rare truce. He also vowed to expedite releasing the Taliban inmates in line with a U.S.-Taliban peace deal. Later, after chairing a high-level security meeting, Ghani ordered the start of the process to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in response to the Taliban’s cease-fire. ”The AFG Gov is extending the offer of peace and is taking further steps to ensure success of the peace process,” the presidency said in a tweet. The unexpected cease-fire was widely hailed. In a series of tweets, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, welcomed the mutual cease-fire. Khalilzad said other positive steps should immediately follow: the release of remaining prisoners as specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement by both sides, no reverting to high levels of violence, and an agreement on a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. “This is a momentous opportunity that should not be missed. The U.S. will do its part to help,” he said. The truce was also welcomed by NATO. The Taliban made the surprise announcement Saturday amid escalating conflict and a shaky peace process. This is only the second of such a brief cease-fire in the otherwise deadly insurgency, now in its 19th year. The message directed Taliban militants to stay out of areas under government control but said government forces could visit Taliban-controlled areas. The latest development comes on the heels of resurging violence in the war-ravaged country, taking a heavy toll on both sides.

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The United States is pushing relations with China to “the brink of a new Cold War,” China’s foreign minister said Sunday, rejecting Washington’s “lies” over the coronavirus while saying Beijing was open to an international effort to find its source.

Keeping up the worsening war of words with Washington over the pandemic and a Beijing move to tighten control over Hong Kong, Wang Yi said the United States had been infected by a “political virus” compelling figures there to continually attack China.

“It has come to our attention that some political forces in the U.S. are taking China-U.S. relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War,” Wang told reporters during a press conference at China’s weeklong annual parliamentary session.

Longstanding friction between the two powers over trade, human rights and a range of other issues have been pushed to new heights since the virus outbreak.

Wang did not identify what “forces” he was referring to, but U.S. President Donald Trump has led world criticism of China’s initial response to the pandemic, which has caused more than 340,000 deaths and economic carnage worldwide.

Trump and members of his administration have said China covered up the emergence of the virus late last year and bungled its initial response.

Washington’s criticism has been widely seen in the United States as an attempt by Trump to divert attention from the White House’s own COVID-19 failures.

Wang took an apparent swipe at the U.S. struggles to contain the virus, which has now infected more people in the United States than anywhere else.

“I call on the U.S. to stop wasting time and stop wasting precious lives,” Wang said.

He said China was “open” to international scientific cooperation to identify the source of the coronavirus but stressed that any investigation must be “free of political interference,” based on science and led by the World Health Organization.

The WHO has called on Beijing to invite the U.N. body to investigate the source, but Wang did not indicate if foreign scientists would be invited to come to China.

‘Stigmatizing China’

“Some political figures in the U.S. rush to label the virus and politicize its origins, stigmatizing China,” Wang said, adding that an investigation must “oppose any presumption of guilt.”

Most scientists believe the virus jumped from animals to humans after emerging in China, possibly from a market in the central city of Wuhan where exotic animals were sold for meat.

Governments including the U.S. and Australia have called in recent weeks for an investigation into the exact origins of the virus.

China has proposed instead that the “global response” to COVID-19 should only be assessed when the pandemic is over.

WHO members on Tuesday adopted a resolution, tabled by the European Union, at the U.N. body’s first virtual assembly to review the international handling of the pandemic, but it does not single out China.

“Aside from the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, there is also a political virus spreading through the U.S.,” he said.

“This political virus is the use of every opportunity to attack and smear China. Some politicians completely disregard basic facts and have fabricated too many lies targeting China and plotted too many conspiracies.”

The introduction at China’s legislature on Friday of a proposal to impose a security law in Hong Kong to suppress the semi-autonomous city’s pro-democracy movement also has drawn U.S. and world condemnation.

But Wang defended the plan, saying it must be implemented “without the slightest delay,” adding that months of often-violent Hong Kong protests last year against China’s growing influence in the financial hub had “seriously endangered China’s national security.”