Afghan officials free 149 from Taliban grasp

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Taliban fighters and residents in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Kabul, Afghanistan: Officials say government forces have freed 149 people – including women and children – who were abducted by the Taliban just hours earlier in the province of Kunduz.

Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry, says the insurgents still hold 21 others hostage following their ambush of a convoy of buses traveling in the Khan Abad district on Monday.

Rahimi says the rescue operation conducted by the security forces has so far killed at least seven Taliban fighters.

Esmatullah Muradi, spokesman for the provincial governor in Kunduz, also confirms the rescue of the hostages and says the operation continues.

The ambush came despite Afghan President Ashraf Gani’s announcement of a conditional cease-fire with the Taliban during the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha this week.

The fate of the abducted in Kunduz province – in an area that has recently fallen under Taliban control – was not immediately known and there was no statement from the insurgents.

The Taliban have resurged in recent years, seizing entire districts across Afghanistan and regularly carrying out large-scale bombings and attacks that have killed scores of people.

According to Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the provincial council in Kunduz, the insurgents stopped three busses on the road near Khan Abad district and forced the passengers to come with them.

Ayubi said he believes the Taliban were looking for government employees or members of the security forces who usually go home for the holidays.

Abdul Rahman Aqtash, police chief in neighbouring Takhar province, said the passengers were from Badakhshan and Takhar provinces and were travelling to the capital, Kabul.

“So far, there is no news on the fate of the passengers, but tribal elders and local officials are trying to negotiate with the Taliban,” Ayubi added.

In his call on Sunday for the truce, Gani said “the cease-fire should be observed from both sides, and its continuation and duration also depend on the Taliban’s stand”.

Gani made the announcement during celebrations of the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence, just a day after the leader of the Afghan Taliban said that there will be no peace in the country as long as the “foreign occupation” continues.

The militant leader, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah, reiterated the group’s position that the country’s 17-year war can only be brought to an end through direct talks with the United States.

In a message released on the occasion of Eid Al Adha – and without pointing to any cease-fire – the Taliban leader said on Saturday that the insurgents remain committed to “Islamic goals,” the sovereignty of Afghanistan and ending the war.

For his part, Gani said he hoped extensions could also be agreed upon to make the cease-fire last until Nov. 20, which will mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

The government had previously announced a cease-fire with the Taliban during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June. The Taliban accepted that three-day cease-fire, but later rejected a call by the president to extend it.

Earlier this month, the Taliban launched a major assault on the eastern city of Ghazni, just 120 kilometres from Kabul and the capital of a province with the same name. Afghan security forces battled the militants inside the city for five days, as the US carried out airstrikes and sent advisers to help the Afghan ground forces.

The battle for Ghazni killed at least 100 members of the Afghan security forces and 35 civilians, according to Afghan officials. The heavy casualties underscore the challenges the government in Kabul faces since the US and NATO officially ended their combat mission at the end of 2014. Since then, American forces, now in a training and advising role, have repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces. 

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