KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — At least two dozen Afghan security forces were killed Friday in an insider attack at their base in southern Afghanistan, officials said, as fighting raged in the war-weary country and efforts to start talks with the Taliban stalled.
The predawn attack in Zabul province comes as Afghanistan is grappling with several crises, including an increase in Taliban violence that has thrown a supposed peace process into turmoil, mounting coronavirus cases, and a political feud in which two men claim the presidency.
The attack in Zabul saw several “infiltrators” open fire on their comrades as they slept, according to provincial governor Rahmatullah Yarmal, in one of the deadliest attacks since the United States signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February.
The predawn raid targeted a joint police and army headquarters near Qalat, the provincial capital.
“In the attack, 14 Afghan army forces and 10 policemen were killed,” Zabul provincial council chief Ata Jan Haq Bayan said.
He said four other Afghan service members were missing.
“The attackers had connections with the Taliban insurgents,” Bayan said.
They fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with a pickup truck, weapons and ammunition.
Yarmal confirmed the toll to AFP.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zabul province, bordering Pakistan, has long been a Taliban stronghold and was the holdout for former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, who died in 2013.
The Zabul attack came just a day after Afghan Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid called on the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire as a way of tackling the novel coronavirus, which observers fear is spreading unchecked through the impoverished country.
Khalid also said Afghan forces should assume a more aggressive “active defense” posture against the Taliban, who have continued attacks across the country since signing a deal with the United States on Feb. 29.
The continued uptick in violence comes as the U.S. continues to plead with leaders in Kabul to press forward with efforts to engage with the Taliban and resolve the political crisis that has divided the government.
In a tweet marking Nowruz — the Persian New Year — Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. negotiator who brokered the Taliban deal, called for Afghan leaders to take advantage of the “historic opportunity for peace” and work with the Taliban to contain the coronavirus.
The Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul continue to bicker over a proposed prisoner swap that was to pave the way for the opening of talks.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Afghan government, which was not a signatory, was to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before intra-Afghan talks start.
President Ashraf Ghani, however, has agreed to release only 1,500, with the remaining 3,500 to be freed as negotiations begin.
The Taliban have rejected the offer and the government’s release of prisoners did not begin as decreed on Saturday.
© Agence France-Presse