Afghan forces free hostages taken by Taliban, as group rejects calls for ceasefire
The Taliban has reasserted itself this month with a wave of deadly attacks that have killed hundreds
The Taliban rejected on Monday an Afghan government offer of a ceasefire and said they would persist with their attacks, two militant commanders said, while insurgents ambushed three buses and nearly 200 passengers travelling for a holiday.
The two Taliban commanders said their supreme leader rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s offer on Sunday of a three-month ceasefire, beginning with this week’s Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday.
In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and militants embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.
But one of the Taliban commanders said the June ceasefire had only helped US forces, who the Taliban are trying to drive out of the country, and Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada rejected the new offer on the grounds it would only help the US-led mission.
“Our leadership feels that they’ll prolong their stay in Afghanistan if we announced a ceasefire now,” a senior Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.
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An official in Ghani’s office said the three-month-long ceasefire declared by the government was conditional, and if the Taliban did not respect it, the government would maintain military operations.
The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in different parts of the country in recent weeks, including on the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting.
The rejection of Ghani’s ceasefire came after Afghan forces launched a lightning operation in northern Kunduz province, rescuing 149 people abducted by the Taliban just hours earlier, officials said.
By mid-afternoon, fighting was still underway in the area to free 21 remaining hostages.
The operation was a boost for Afghan forces, which have struggled to contain a resurgent Taliban on battlefields across the country.
On Monday morning, the Taliban ambushed a convoy of three buses travelling on a road in the Khan Abad district, and forced everyone to come with them, according to Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Rahimi said that after Afghan security forces freed 149, the insurgents were still holding 21 hostages from the buses. He added at least seven Taliban fighters have been killed in the fighting so far.
Esmatullah Muradi, a spokesman for the governor of Kunduz, said the kidnapping happened when three buses were travelling through Kunduz from Takhar province, on their way to the capital, Kabul.
“The buses were stopped by the Taliban fighters, passengers were forced to step down and they have been taken to an undisclosed location,” Muradi said.
The Taliban confirmed they had captured “three buses packed with passengers”.
“We decided to seize the buses after our intelligence inputs revealed that many men working with Afghan security forces were travelling to Kabul,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said by telephone. “We have taken the buses to a safe area to prevent any clashes and we are now identifying members of the security forces,” he said, adding that civilians would be released.
Separately, Mujahid said the Taliban would release at least 500 prisoners, including members of the security forces on Monday, a day before Eid celebrations begin.
“We will release some prisoners captured during clashes in three provinces,” he said.
But he did not say whether any soldiers or policemen taken from the three buses would be released.
Additional reporting by Associated Press