ISLAMABAD - Afghan officials said Tuesday that the Taliban took dozens of people hostage near the northern city of Kunduz.
The insurgents apparently set up a check-point in a pre-dawn action on the main road near the provincial capital and stopped buses and vehicles heading to Kunduz from the national capital, Kabul.
A regional police commander, Sher Aziz Kamawal, told VOA that the insurgents seized at least 52 passengers and killed 17 of them. Residents saw bodies of the slain passengers floating in the nearby Chardara river.
A Taliban spokeman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility, saying it has captured "26 army and police” who were wearing civilian outfits and traveling in private cars. He said six hostages were killed because they tried to escape, adding the raid was planned after the Taliban had received “credible intelligence information” from its sources the passengers traveling in private cares were actually members of Afghan security forces.
Regional police commander Kamawal did not rule out the possibility that there were some security forces among the hostages.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in a Twitter post condemned the violence. "What Taliban did today is more of an act of wild animals than just a war crime against the innocent Afghan civilians." he said. Abdullah added that the Afghan government will not longer wait for peace talks with the Taliban and "will avenge the blood of our people in the soonest time."
The Taliban had briefly overrun Kunduz last September.
Afghan forces recaptured the strategically important city days later with the U.S. air support. But residents say retreating insurgents setup hideouts in surrounding districts and have since conducted guerrilla attacks occasionally.
Deadly fight rages in Helmand
Meanwhile, intense clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban rebels are continuing in three districts of southern Helmand province.
The fighting in Nadali, Gereshk and Marjah began Saturday when the Islamist insurgency staged a string of coordinated attacks. Local police commanders have confirmed killing of more than 50 Afghan forces, while dozens more were wounded.
The Taliban also is said to have seized territory and the fighting has reached the provincial capital, Lashkargah.
On Tuesday, provincial governor Hayatullah Hayat undertook an inspection of the city and said reports of its collapse are misplaced.
He confirmed only 40 casualties among Afghan forces and said at least 50 rebels have been killed while another 70 were wounded in the fighting.
The governor said fresh Afghan forces have also arrived in the conflict zone and a counter-offensive is being planned.
Helmand, where several districts are under the control of the insurgency, is the largest Afghan province and a poppy-growing hub.
The Taliban has intensified insurgent activities after its new leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhnduzada took charge following the killing of his predecessor, Mullah Mansoor, in the May 21 U.S. drone strike in neighboring Pakistan.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousafi, claims its fighters have killed more than 100 Afghan forces, including several commanders since the fighting began.
He says insurgents have captured nearly two dozen security posts and two large military bases in the area.
The insurgent group often exaggerates its battlefield advances.