Afghan troops backed by US forces have killed two senior Taliban leaders and over three dozen fighters of the militant group in joint airstrikes conducted in northern and western regions of the war-ravaged country.
According to a statement by Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, the Taliban’s shadow governor for northern Samangan province, Mawlavi Nooruddin, was killed along with four fighters in an airstrike in Dara-e-Soof Payeen district on Sunday morning.
But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the governor had been killed in the aerial attack, claiming in a statement that Nooruddin was alive.
In a separate incident, Mullah Sayed Azim, a Taliban designate governor for Anar Dara district in western Farah was killed in a joint Afghan and foreign force raid.
“Sayed Azim was killed along with 34 other insurgents in Anar Dara,” media outlets quoted Mohibullah Mohib, a spokesman for Farah provincial police as saying.
Senior security officials in capital Kabul said that the latest operations were aimed at foiling attacks planned by the Taliban on Afghan forces
Fierce clashes have escalated across Afghanistan following the collapse of diplomatic talks between the US and the Taliban.
Fighting picked up in several parts of the violence-wracked country after US President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the Taliban last week.
Last week, at least four members of Afghan security forces were killed in a Taliban-claimed bomb explosion that rocked a Kabul district. A similar attack by the militant group claimed the lives of at least 10 civilians and two NATO troops near the US embassy in the capital.
For months, the militant group, which does not recognize the government in Kabul, had been holding direct talks with representatives of the US government in the Qatari capital, Doha, to reach a peace deal, but all to no avail.
Under a draft accord that the two sides had agreed to before the talks were ceased, thousands of US troops would have been pulled out over the next few months in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.
Speaking at a memorial service marking the September 11, 2001 terror attack on Wednesday, Trump said the two sides “had peace talks scheduled a few days ago” but upon learning about the killing of “a great American soldier from Puerto Rico and 11 other innocent people”, he had “called them off.”
Trump said long-running talks with the Taliban in Qatar were also “dead,” to which the Taliban responded by threatening to kill more Americans in Afghanistan.
A Taliban spokesman has recently said that Trump’s decision to cancel the talks would lead to the further loss of American lives and assets.
“The Americans will suffer more than anyone else for cancelling the talks,” the spokesman said.
The Taliban’s five-year rule over at least three quarters of Afghanistan came to an end following the US invasion in 2001, but 18 years on, Washington is seeking a truce with the militants, who still control large swathes of territory.
The Taliban group, which now controls or has influence in about half of Afghanistan’s territory, has so far rejected the proposal to lay down arms and instead called on the US to end the use of force in Afghanistan. It also insists that talks cannot move ahead until foreign forces leave the country.
Nearly 20,000 foreign troops, most of them Americans, are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of a mission to purportedly train, assist, and advise Afghan security forces.
Afghan Taliban rescind ban on Red Cross
In a separate development on Sunday, the Afghan Taliban rescinded a months-long ban on the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) working in areas under their control.
The militants and the ICRC “consented to following the old agreement on top of new promises in humanitarian aid leading to the Islamic Emirate granting ICRC permission of resuming their activities,” said Taliban in a statement.
Taliban fighters were instructed to “pave the way for ICRC activities and be mindful of security to this committee’s workers and equipment,” it added.
Schaerer Juan-Pedro, head of ICRC in Kabul welcomed the restoration of security guarantees by Taliban for those working for the organization.
“We welcome the acknowledgment of our humanitarian principles and renewal of security guarantees to enable us (to) work in #Afghanistan in favor of people affected by the armed conflict,” the ICRC said on Twitter.
In April the insurgents banned both the ICRC and World Health Organization (WHO) from carrying out relief activities in areas under their control and revoked security guarantees.
In August last year, the Taliban temporarily withdrew safety guarantees for the ICRC, accusing the international group of failing to meet its mission obligations to monitor detention conditions in Afghan jails and provide medical aid to Taliban prisoners.
The developments come as Taliban continue to strike Afghan installations at will after the militants issued their own vow to continue fighting the US after the peace talks with the US in Qatar came to an end.