Taliban kill 21 Afghan soldiers, suspend prisoner swap attempt
The Afghan Taliban have killed 21 soldiers in an assault in a remote mountainous region, the Afghan government said, and six soldiers were missing after the militants' most deadly assault on the security forces in months.
Also today, in a possible blow to US efforts to foster peace talks to end the Afghan conflict, the Taliban said they had suspended efforts to arrange a possible exchange of Taliban and US prisoners due to the "complexity" of the situation.
It was not immediately clear whether the attack in the eastern province of Kunar was related to the suspension of talks on a prisoner swap.
In response to the killings in Kunar, a mountainous region bordering Pakistan that has long been a stronghold of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other militants, President Hamid Karzai put off a trip to Sri Lanka.
"The Afghan president is saddened by this tragic incident, and therefore he postponed today's official trip to Sri Lanka," Karzai's office said in a statement.
Government officials said 21 soldiers were killed and three were wounded in the attack on an army checkpoint in Kunar's Ghaziabad district. Six remained missing, they said.
The government sent reinforcements to the area where the pre-dawn attack took place, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said in a statement.
The Taliban appeared to have been waiting for them. Azimi said the reinforcements "came under enemy attack, and a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near them". The suicide bomber did not kill any Afghan soldiers, Azimi said.
In a possible reference to al Qaeda or other militants who might not be part of the Afghan Taliban, Azimi also told Reuters that "foreign fighters" had taken part in the attack.
The Afghan Taliban, in a statement emailed to media, claimed responsibility for the attack. Local officials in Kunar said three insurgents were killed.
Sunday's assault was the worst since last September, when the Taliban attacked a convoy of Afghan forces in relatively peaceful northern Badakhshan province, killing at least 18.
The attack took place as US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan ahead a year-end deadline, shifting the bulk of the fight against Taliban and other militants to Afghans.
While Afghanistan's police and army are seen as having made big strides in their capabilities, doubts remain about whether they can keep the Taliban at bay, especially in remote areas like Ghaziabad.
It remains unclear if the United States and allied nations will keep a small force in Afghanistan after 2014 to support Afghan forces and go after al Qaeda, due to Karzai's refusal so far to sign a pact authorising a future troop presence.
Karzai urged neighbouring Pakistan, where Afghan and US officials say Taliban and other militants are able to resupply and plot attacks, to help it fight militants.
"The President once again calls on the government of Pakistan to earnestly and sincerely cooperate with a strong will with Afghanistan and to take serious and effective measures in eliminating the terrorist sanctuaries that have continued to pose a grave and serious threat to both the countries," his office said in its statement.