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Taliban attack on checkpoint kills at least 14 Afghan troops amid talks on prisoner release

Taliban Prisoners (MOECKLI, Olivier/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Taliban militants have attacked an army checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 14 soldiers in the latest in a series of incidents since a three-day cease-fire that was in effect during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr ended on May 26.

The Defense Ministry said on May 29 that the overnight attacked killed 14 soldiers in the Dande Patan district, while local Governor Eid Mohammad Ahmadzai put the number of the security forces killed at 15, adding that 20 Taliban fighters were also killed in the fighting.

The Taliban took responsibility for the attack in Paktia Province, calling it a “defensive action.”

“Last night, the mujahedin carried out attacks against the newly established posts of the enemy in Dande Patan district of Paktia Province,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.

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Afghan officials accused the Taliban of carrying out two other raids on separate checkpoints on May 28 in Farah and Parwan provinces, killing another 14 Afghan security force members, but the Taliban has not commented on those attacks.

National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said that despite sporadic clashes the cease-fire would continue.

“The detente that started during Eid al-Fitr continues despite reports of scattered incidents to the contrary,” Faisal said.

The latest Taliban attack came as a five-member Taliban “technical” delegation was in Kabul discussing the release of militants and Afghan government prisoners.

The prisoner exchange is part of a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February that called on the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the militants to free around 1,000 government captives as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks. The February 29 deal did not include the Afghan government.

“A technical delegation of the Taliban is in Kabul to work with a technical team of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the release of prisoners of both sides,” Faisal tweeted on May 28.

Later on May 28, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that the group had released 80 Afghan soldiers and government officials from their jails in northern Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. It brings to more than 300 the number of captives freed by the Taliban since April.

During the cease-fire, Afghan authorities released some 1,000 Taliban prisoners — part of a pledge by the government to free up to 2,000 militants in response to the Taliban’s cease-fire move.

Under a key point of the February deal, Washington agreed to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 troops by mid-July in a first stage, before a complete withdrawal by May 2021.

U.S. President Donald Trump on May 26 said he has not set a target date for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid speculation he may make ending America’s longest war a campaign issue ahead of November’s presidential election.

Trump said there were around 7,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. But U.S. and NATO officials speaking on condition of anonymity clarified that U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is down to nearly 8,600, well ahead of schedule, in part because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The U.S.-Taliban deal also calls for the Afghan government and the militants to start negotiations to decide the future of Afghanistan.

Expectations that those negotiations could finally begin were raised after President Ashraf Ghani and his rival in last year’s presidential polls, Adullah Abdullah, reached an agreement after months of political feuding following contested presidential polls in September.