ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Intense fighting is raging in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have made territorial gains in three northern provinces. The rebel advances come just days before a second round of peace talks between the warring sides is to be hosted by neighboring Pakistan.
The fall of a district called Kohistanat, in the Sur-i-Pul province, is the latest in a series of battlefield gains the Taliban has made in the past few days.
Provincial officials say hundreds of security personnel guarding the area had to retreat in the wake of a well-coordinated assault that came from all directions.
Authorities in the neighboring Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces also have confirmed the Islamist insurgency has overrun dozens of villages and a large Afghan military base in recent days.
Meanwhile, Afghan Interior Ministry officials say they are investigating allegations that scores of security personnel in some areas defected to the Taliban with their heavy weaponry and helped to facilitate the militant victories.
Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said the battlefield setbacks were “temporary.” He said the fall of a district for a few hours is not something to worry about and it should not be a matter of celebration for the opposition. Waziri added that Afghan ground and air forces soon will launch a major operation in northern provinces to retake the lost territory.
There are conflicting reports about the number of casualties in the latest fighting that is said to have forced hundreds of families to flee to safer locations.
The increase in hostilities comes as Afghan government and Taliban officials prepare to meet Friday in Pakistan for a second round of peace talks aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan.
Among other issues, Afghan officials say they intend to demand the Taliban halt its violent campaign.