Afghanistan security forces said Sunday they have halted advances overnight by the Taliban on a key northern city and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
The fighting on the outskirts of Pul-e-Khumri, capital of Baghlan province, erupted when the Taliban overran several villages and security outposts, residents and insurgent sources said.
The hostilities temporarily closed the main highway, which links the national capital of Kabul with eight northern provinces as well as neighboring countries.
After security forces led successful counterattacks and forced the rebels to retreat, the road was reopened, provincial officials said.
A Taliban spokesman in a statement sent to reporters denied official claims and alleged the Afghan government was trying to hide its “defeat and losses” through such propaganda.
Insurgents in recent months have repeatedly seized control of parts of the more than 2,000-mile-long Ring Road network, which connects major Afghan population centers. The seizures occasionally disrupt traffic.
Meanwhile, government peace negotiators have concluded weeks of talks on a peace deal with another insurgent group that has for years fought alongside the Taliban.
Negotiators of the militant Hezb-i-Islami faction, which is led by fugitive Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, remained in Kabul to conduct further meetings.
However, officials cautioned it may be weeks before an agreement is reached.
But rights activists and many Afghans have criticized President Ashraf Ghani’s reconciliation attempts with Hekmatyar.
FILE - Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council talks with delegates (not pictured) from the Hezb-e-Islami group, during a meeting in Kabul, March 17, 2016.
The 68-year-old former prime minister is best known for allegedly killing thousands of civilians and committing human rights abuses during the Afghan infighting of the 1990s.
Afghan authorities believe that Hekmatyar is hiding in neighboring Pakistan. The United States has designated him a terrorist and his name is also included in a U.N. blacklist.
“You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies,” Afghan first lady Rula Ghani said in responding to the criticism while speaking at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Friday.
Rula Ghani defended her husband’s peace bid, saying he is not giving away any kind of “privilege or concession” on peoples rights.
“These [Hekmatyar] are now old people. They are ending their lives and they want to come to Afghanistan and finish their lives where they were born. ... So it is a hard one to swallow, I agree, [but] … we need to move on,” she said.