Fresh clashes between government forces and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have reportedly killed dozens of combatants on both sides.
The deadly Afghan violence rages as disputes over an ongoing prisoner swap between the two foes have remained unresolved, hampering U.S.-led diplomatic efforts aimed at starting intra-Afghan peace negotiations to find a political settlement to the war.
The Afghan Defense Ministry and police said Tuesday that security forces disrupted major overnight Taliban assaults in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Zabul, killing nearly 50 insurgents.
For its part, the Taliban said one of its suicide bombers detonated an explosives-laden mini truck near an Afghan National Army convoy Monday night in central Wardak province. It claimed the powerful blast "killed and injured” about 50 soldiers, though the Taliban often issues inflated claims.
Afghan defense officials confirmed the attack in Sayed Abad district, saying it killed eight soldiers and injured nine others.
Meanwhile, the Taliban announced Tuesday it has freed 16 more Afghan forces as part of the prisoner exchange with the Kabul government. The insurgent group says it has released 861 detainees out of the promised 1,000.
The prisoner exchange was agreed to in a deal between the United States and the Taliban, which was signed in February to help end the decadeslong conflict in Afghanistan.
In return, Afghan authorities are required to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. So far, they have freed around 4,400.
The Afghan government, which was not part of the U.S.-Taliban deal, has refused to release a last set of about 600 insurgent inmates, stalling progress toward launching the much-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations that were supposed to start in March.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi again insisted the detainees in question could not be released because of their involvement in “serious” crimes, including killing innocent Afghans. He also denounced the escalating Taliban battlefield attacks as a violation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
Mohammad Nabi Omari, a senior Taliban leader who was also part of the insurgent team that negotiated the agreement with Washington, has strongly rejected Kabul’s “unsubstantiated” charges against the remaining detainees.
In an online video statement released by pro-Taliban social media, Omari accused Kabul of using “lame excuses” to “intentionally” delay the prisoner exchanges and the proposed peace dialogue.
“Had the issue of prisoner releases been resolved, intra-Afghan negotiations would have started months ago, and we would have possibly agreed on a cease-fire by now,” Omari asserted.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Ross Wilson also urged the Afghan government on Sunday to facilitate the start of negotiations with the Taliban as soon as possible by completing the prisoner exchanges.