KABUL -- Fear and outrage are gripping Kabul following a series of killings of prominent Afghans including religious scholars, politicians, doctors, journalists, activists and, most recently, two women judges working for the Supreme Court.
Afghan officials blame the Taliban for the targeted killings that started in September -- around the time the government launched peace talks with the Taliban -- and have not abated.
The Taliban often deny or do not comment on attacks that kill civilians.
In the latest high-profile ambush in Kabul on Sunday (January 17), gunmen on motorbikes shot dead two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court, Zakia Herawi and Qadria.
The attack happened as they were driving to their office in a court vehicle, said Ahmad Fahim Qaweem, a spokesman for the Supreme Court.
"Unfortunately, we have lost two women judges in today's attack," he told AFP, adding that another civilian, their driver, was wounded.
There are more than 200 female judges working for the country's top court, according to Qaweem.
Herawi's brother Mustafa described the horrible morning.
"We were having breakfast when we heard the gunshots," he told AFP at the family home in Kabul. "My children screamed."
"First, the driver was shot in the shoulder, and then my sister was shot in the forehead," he said, adding that his family had never expected the city's surging violence to reach their own doorstep.
"We had no enmity with anyone... We had not received any threats," he said.
But Herawi had no doubt who was to blame for his sister's murder.
"The Taliban have assassinated my sister," he said.
The shooting came just hours after a high-level meeting between the Taliban negotiation team and US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, along with the head of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, according to tweets by a Taliban spokesman.
During the sit-down, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said the insurgents called again for the release of the group's remaining jailed fighters, along with the removal of the Taliban from the United Nations blacklist.
The Afghan government has already released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates despite widespread concern, and some evidence, that the fighters would be used to reinforce the insurgents' ranks.
President Ashraf Ghani accused the Taliban of launching an "illegitimate war and hostility".
"The government once again reiterates its call on the Taliban that violence, terror, brutality and crimes... will only prolong the war in the country," he said in a statement issued by the presidential palace.
"The terrorist attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups against our defenceless compatriots and the violence against them are contrary to Islamic guidelines and the spirit of peace," the statement said.
Shaharzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, also condemned the murders, calling the ongoing killings a "systematic massacre".
"Afghanistan is losing one of its most important gains, its educated & professional cadre, in what seems to be a systematic massacre & the world seems to be just watching," she tweeted. "This must stop."
US Charge d'Affaires Ross Wilson blamed the Taliban directly as he called for an investigation.
"The Taliban should understand that such actions for which it bears responsibility outrage the world and must cease if peace is to come to Afghanistan," he tweeted.
Justice must prevail
The targeted killings have surged because militants expect to be pardoned if caught, following a mass prisoner exchange between the warring sides last year, said Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is responsible for security in Kabul.
"The solution is that those who are arrested should be hanged," he said on Facebook on Monday (January 18).
"The killing of two Afghan female judges in Kabul disappointed me. It's a painful act that goes against Afghan culture and Islamic rules," Afghan Foreign Minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar tweeted. "Afghanistan's judiciary system is a symbol of Islamic justice and attacks on its staff add distrust to the peace process."
"The enemies of Afghanistan used to target journalists and civil society activists and now they target women judges," said Abdul Sattar Hussaini, a member of the Wolesi Jirga from Farah Province.
"The Wolesi Jirga strongly condemns this heinous and un-Islamic act of the Taliban or any other militant group that has committed it and calls on the government and the international community to prosecute and punish the perpetrators," he said.
Kabul-based women's rights activist Khatera Ishaqzai condemned the spate of targeted assassinations.
"Attacking female judges is an attack on humanity, an attack on Islam and an attack on the judiciary," she said. "The enemies want to destroy a society by targeting women."
"As peace talks continue, targeted killings and rising insecurity have made women to lose trust in the peace process," she said. "We call on parties to the conflict to speed up their talks instead of escalating violence and targeted killings."
The Taliban carried out more than 18,000 attacks in 2020, Ahmad Zia Siraj, head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), told lawmakers earlier this month.
On Monday Kabul was rocked by three bombs, in which one person was killed and another wounded, officials said.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]