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Taliban kill senior peace envoy in south Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban fighters killed a senior member of Afghanistan's peace council on Wednesday, officials said, dealing another blow to nascent peace efforts with the insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai formed a 70-member High Peace Council in 2010 in a bid to reach a peace settlement with the insurgents, but little has been achieved, with the Taliban saying they will not talk with the Afghan government.

Malim Shahwali, the council's chief in the southern province of Helmand, was traveling to the violence-plagued Gereshk district when insurgents ambushed his convoy, said the provincial governor's spokesman, Omar Zwak.

"First an explosion hit his convoy and then the Taliban gunmen opened fire, killing Malim Shahwali and two bodyguards," Zwak told Reuters.

Three policemen and an Afghan soldier were wounded, Zwak said.

The attack came a day after three British soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Helmand.

In 2011, a suicide bomber disguised as a peace envoy killed the then chairman of the peace council, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

In May last year, gunmen in Kabul assassinated Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister turned peace negotiator.

Helmand, which is the largest producer of opium in Afghanistan, has been the scene of the some of the fiercest fighting between NATO-led foreign forces and their Afghan government allies and the Taliban.

Fear is mounting that Afghanistan could be engulfed in turmoil after the pullout of most NATO combat troops by the end of 2014. A presidential election is also due that year.

NATO and its partners are training Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security forces, though questions remain over how well the Afghans will be able to tackle the insurgency.

Last week, the Taliban vowed to start a new campaign of suicide attacks on foreign military bases, diplomatic areas as well as the "Karzai regime" as part of their spring offensive.

(Reporting by Mohammad Sarwar; Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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