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Afghanistan forces suffer heavy loss against Taliban in northwest battle

REUTERS/Omar Sobhani | Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers attend their graduation ceremony while a NATO soldier stands guard at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC) in Kabul, Afghanistan January 27, 2019.

A Taliban assault on checkpoints killed 22 troops, officials said Sunday, as at least 50 Afghan security forces surrendered to the militants and around 100 tried to flee to neighbouring Turkmenistan after heavy fighting in Afghanistan’s northwest.

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The battles mark the latest setbacks for the country's battered security forces, who come under daily attack and have suffered staggering casualties in recent years.

The attacks have continued even as the Taliban have been holding direct negotiations with the United States aimed at ending the 17-year war, with both sides citing progress.

Mohammad Tahir Rahmani, head of provincial council in the northern Faryab province, said the insurgents launched the latest attack late Saturday against checkpoints manned by police and pro-government militias in Qaisar district, setting off a fierce gun battle that lasted into Sunday morning. The army sent in reinforcements, who were among those killed.

Journalist Margaux Benn: Attacks happened in two neighbouring provinces

He said another 20 Afghan forces were wounded in the attack.

"The Taliban have gained control of more areas in the district" after stepping up attacks in recent weeks, Rahmani said, adding that troops reinforcements have arrived from the capital

Provincial police spokesman Karim Yuresh confirmed that a large number of Taliban launched attacks in Faryab, but he could not immediately provide more details.

Around 100 Afghan soldiers tried to get to Turkmenistan

Last week, around 100 Afghan soldiers in the neighbouring Badghis province fled their posts and tried to cross the border into neighbouring Turkmenistan during a weeklong battle with the Taliban, officials said Sunday.

During the same battle, at least 50 members of the Afghan security forces have surrendered to the Taliban, officials also said, adding that this fight for control of Afghanistan's western province has created heavy casualties.

The remaining 50 continued fighting in the district of Bala Murghab, Badghis provincial council chairman Abdul Aziz Bik said. Bala Murghab is the province's most populous district.

"These soldiers have been fighting against the Taliban for years and if they give up, they will be killed by Taliban," Bik said.

Mohammad Naser Nazari, a provincial council member in Badghis, said the soldiers weren't allowed to cross the border and their fate remains unknown. The Taliban have posted pictures of captured soldiers on social media.

Jamshid Shahabi, the provincial governor's spokesman, said 16 soldiers have been killed and 20 wounded during the ongoing battle in the Bala Murghab district, in which the military carried out airstrikes and dispatched reinforcements. He said a number of soldiers tried to flee, without providing an exact figure.

Shahabi said more than 40 insurgents were killed in the fighting. In addition, he pointed out that the provincial police chief and army commander are in the district and instructing the forces to root out insurgents and rescue soldiers. Officials said the fighting had largely subsided by Sunday, with sporadic clashes breaking out in remote areas.

Nazari provided a higher toll, saying 50 soldiers were killed and around 100 others were missing. He said hundreds of local residents have gathered in front of the Badghis governor's office to express their concerns about security in the province.

All eyes on Bala Murghab, almost totally controlled by the Taliban

He said Bala Murghab is almost completely controlled by the Taliban, with Afghan forces confined to the district headquarters. The district was at risk of falling to the Taliban unless Afghan forces receive air and ground reinforcements, Badghis provincial council member Abdullah Afzali said on Saturday.

The Bala Murghab district has been a focal point of battle in recent months. The Taliban killed 20 Afghan soldiers and captured 20 less than a week ago.

In a separate development on Sunday, an Islamic State group affiliate claimed the killing of a local TV journalist in the eastern Khost province. The group did not say why it targeted Sultan Mahmoud Khirkhowa, a reporter with the local Zhman TV and radio, who was killed Friday when two men on a motorcycle opened fire on his vehicle. Another Afghan reporter was wounded in a targeted bombing last week in the southern Helmand province.

The Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghanistan, the most since US-led forces ousted it from power in 2001, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The militant group conducts frequent attacks on Afghan security posts.

Afghanistan is among the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters. The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee reported 121 cases of violence against journalists and media workers in 2018, with 17 killed.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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