ISLAMABAD - The Taliban has killed at least 23 Afghan soldiers in fresh attacks, as a stalemate persists in U.S.-brokered peace talks under way in Qatar.
Officials said Friday insurgents overnight staged a major assault on an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Khashrod district in southwestern Nimroz province.
District chief Jalil Watandost told VOA the Taliban destroyed the base and took four ANA personnel hostage. He said the Afghan air force carried out several retaliatory airstrikes in the area against insurgent positions. Watandost did not share further details.
Separately, insurgents raided security outposts in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province, killing at least seven security forces and injuring several others. A provincial police spokesman told VOA the Taliban also suffered heavy casualties in the ensuing clashes but he did not elaborate.
Afghan security forces have sustained a number of casualties in recent weeks in battles with the Taliban.
Takhar airstrike and civilian casualties
Earlier this week, at least 40 ANA personnel were killed in two separate insurgent ambushes in northeastern Takhar province.
The Afghan air force carried out an airstrike in Takhar on Wednesday against the assailants, hitting a mosque school and killing at least 12 children, while another 18 were injured.
It was not known if Taliban fighters were in the vicinity of the mosque but the Afghan Defense Ministry insisted those killed were Taliban fighters and commanders.
The ministry noted, however, that a special team had been assigned to investigate reports of civilian casualties.
Senior members of the Takhar provincial council confirmed to VOA on Thursday that all the victims were children receiving Islamic education at the school. They said the Afghan air force mistook the school for a Taliban hideout.
The United Nations said it was also investigating the reports and promised to release its findings "when complete."
On Friday, Human Rights Watch slammed a top Afghan leader for ordering the arrest of the individual who reported the civilian casualties from the airstrike in Takhar.
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, the official in question, denied on Twitter that any civilians had died in the air raid. He said "the person responsible for spread of this venomous & fake news was arrested immediately."
In a Facebook post, Saleh also threatened legal action against those "who make false allegations," but he did not share details about the suspected detainee.
"Vice President Amrullah Saleh is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful airstrike that killed civilians, including many children," said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW.
"The government should immediately release anyone detained under Saleh's order and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation of the airstrike," said Gossman. "The free expression rights of those reporting on alleged violations should be respected."
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that women and children comprised 65 percent of the civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan air force for the first half of 2020.
Gossman lamented the Afghan government has "a poor record" of investigating such incidents and no one has been held accountable to date.
Stalemate in Afghan talks
The uptick in violence comes as month-long direct peace talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government in the Qatari capital of Doha continue to face a stalemate over procedural matters.
The dialogue, which seeks a permanent cease-fire and a political power-sharing deal between the Afghan rivals, stems from a February conditional agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban aimed at ending the 19-year-old war.
The pact requires a phased withdrawal of all American and NATO forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for the Taliban's counterterrorism assurances and pledges to negotiate a peace deal with Afghan rivals to permanently stop four decades of hostilities.