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Taliban warn Kabul residents to 'keep away' ahead of attacks

KABUL, May 21, 2018 (BSS/AFP) - The Taliban warned Kabul residents Monday to avoid "military centres" in the heavily fortified city, saying they are planning more attacks in the Afghan capital where civilians have long taken the brunt of casualties.

The militant group has issued such warnings to civilians before, including during a failed attempt to take the western city of Farah last week, but it is believed to be the first time they have singled out Kabul.

The United Nations has said the capital -- where the Islamic State group is also stepping up attacks -- is already the deadliest place in the country for civilians.

The Taliban said they were planning more attacks on "the enemy's military and intelligence centres" as part of an annual spring offensive.

"Therefore, to avoid civilian casualties and only cause damage to enemy military, we are asking Kabul residents to keep away... we don't want even a single innocent civilian to be killed," said a statement published online.

The group did not define what was meant by "military and intelligence centres".

Such targets are difficult to avoid given that the overcrowded city is the heart of the country's intelligence, government and military operations and also plagued by traffic jams due to ubiquitous checkpoints and barriers.

"Any attacks or explosions, even a small one, would cause civilian casualties because military installations are located in the centre of the city near people's houses," political and military analyst Nik Mohammad told AFP.

The Taliban's statement was pure propaganda, he said, adding that if they fight in the cities "you will definitely kill civilians, there is no way to avoid that". - Top target -

The Taliban statement came Monday as officials in the southern province of Kandahar said the insurgents had killed five mine disposal technicians as they were clearing the area in preparation for a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline.

The Taliban have previously pledged to cooperate with the TAPI pipeline, named after the countries taking part in the project: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

An insurgent spokesman said they were still investigating the incident.

The Taliban are stepping up their Al Khandaq spring offensive in an apparent rejection of calls to take up the Afghan government's February offer of peace talks.

The group portrays itself as taking care to avoid civilian casualties, but has claimed attacks such as a massive bomb hidden in an ambulance in January. This went off in a crowded street and killed more than 100 people.

The extremists' chilling ability to hit at the heart of the country despite increased police checks has spotlighted security and intelligence failures, with the government of President Ashraf Ghani coming under increasing pressure to protect civilians.

Kabul is overflowing with returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans fleeing war and seeking jobs and security.

The city is a top target. It accounted for 16 percent of all civilian casualties last year, when 1,831 civilians were killed or wounded nationwide, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The UN has warned that 2018 could be even deadlier.