Afghan forces launch air, ground attacks on Taliban, killing 51
By Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan forces used ground attacks and air strikes in multiple operations against the Taliban during the last 24 hours, killing 51 fighters in an escalation that signaled renewed deadlock in peace talks.
Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said on Sunday that government forces had conducted 13 ground offensives and 12 air strikes in nine provinces, adding that 51 "terrorists" had been killed, 13 wounded and six arrested.
Local officials in the northern province of Balkh said at least three women and four children were killed in the air strikes, prompting protests in front of the provincial governor's office.
The government pledged to send a fact-finding mission to investigate the reports of civilian deaths.
Meanwhile, the Taliban said it had staged two more attacks targeting security forces over the weekend, following sporadic assaults last week.
Afghan security forces' checkpoints in Kunduz were attacked on Saturday night, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement, adding that 10 members of the security forces were killed and three wounded. Taliban fighters also captured a large weapons cache, he said.
In a separate statement, the Taliban said its fighters had ambushed an Afghan forces patrol in Balkh, killing eight security personnel.
The spike in hostilities comes as U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha take a two-day break for consultations about how to overcome recent hurdles in the talks, a source close to the process told Reuters.
Negotiations between the two sides began last year in Doha but have been interrupted at least twice after Taliban attacks on U.S. military personnel in September and December.
Last week, another round of talks kicked off with U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad meeting repeatedly with the Taliban's chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Multiple sources close to the talks said the Taliban had agreed internally to halt attacks against U.S. forces and "reduce" assaults against Afghan government interests.
Over the last week, however, reports of attacks by Taliban fighters on government installations, including police stations continued to filter in from different parts of Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Matin Sahak from Mazar-e-Sharif; Writing by Gibran Peshimam)