Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have attacked several locations in a troubled southeastern province, overrunning a key district headquarters and killing, among others, the regional commander of Afghan special police forces.
The pre-dawn, coordinated assault targeted eight areas in Ghazni province, including Jaghato district, officials confirmed Saturday.
Khaliq Dad Akbari, head of the provincial council, told VOA insurgents entered the district center and seized equipment before setting parts of police headquarters on fire.
The Taliban killed the commander of Ghazni's special police forces along with at least six security personnel, Akbari said.
The Taliban briefly overrun Jaghto earlier this year. It is one of the largest and most populated parts of Ghazni, where most residents are ethnic Shi'ite Hazara.
A Taliban spokesman claimed its fighters have also attacked an "enemy base" and inflicted heavy casualties in neighboring Nawur district, Ghazni's largest, which is entirely Hazara.
Insurgents have kept Ghazni under pressure, particularly in areas around the provincial capital, also known as Ghazni, about 180 kilometers from the national capital of Kabul. The province is located on the main highway linking Kabul with southern Afghanistan.
Separately, Afghan officials confirmed Saturday that a roadside bomb blast killed a district chief in western Ghor province and blamed the Taliban for the attack.
Anti-Government Protests Continue in North
Meanwhile, supporters of a detained militia commander continued street protests in several northern Afghan provinces for a fifth day on Saturday.
The demonstrations erupted earlier this week in the province of Faryab after Afghan commando forces there arrested the district police chief, Nizamudin Qaisari, accused of abusing his powers.
Protesters are demanding the government swiftly free Qaisari and his supporters have also taken to the streets in the surrounding provinces of Balkh, Jawzjan, Samangan and Sar-e-Pul.
Hundreds of angry protesters blocked the main highway linking Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, for several hours Saturday.
Ghani's Crackdown on Unruly Militias
Qaisari is a staunch ally of Afghan vice president General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who lives in exile in Turkey. The arrest is said to be part of efforts to rein in the pro-government regional strongman allegedly involved in abuses and undermining counterinsurgency military operations in their areas.
Two other major parties, Hezbi Wahdat-e-Mardum and Jamiat-e-Islami, have also joined the protesting Dostum's Junbish-e-Islami party to pressure the central government to free Qaisari and allow the exiled leader to return to Afghanistan.
President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday acknowledged he has ordered a crackdown on militias after receiving complaints the forces were "blurring the lines of war" and contributing to high casualties Taliban insurgents are inflicting on Afghan security forces.
A high-powered government delegation made up of civilian and military officials is in Faryab to try to resolve the crisis but discussions apparently have not yielded results.
"I call upon the government to release my representative in Faryab Nizamuddin Qaisari immediately. Otherwise all government programs in the north will face serious challenges, including the upcoming elections," Afghan media quoted Dostum as saying in a statement released in Turkey.
Afghanistan is scheduled to hold long-delayed parliamentary and provincial council elections on October 20.
Ghani installed Dostum, his running mate in the 2014 presidential election, as the vice-president,ignoring long-running domestic and international complaints the ethnic Uzbek militia commander had committed rights abuses and war crimes.
Dostum has since fallen out with the president and fled to Turkey last year while he was being probed for torture and rape allegations.