GHAZNI, Afghanistan, (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents seized a remote Afghan town overnight, patrolling the streets for some hours before withdrawing ahead of a government operation to retake it on Friday, residents and officials said.
Ghazni province where the attack took place is only a two-hour drive south from the capital, Kabul, and while not as unstable as provinces such as Kandahar or Helmand, the villages around the historic city of Ghazni have seen an upsurge of Taliban activity in the past two years.
Ghulam Shah, district governor of the captured district of Rashidan, had links with the Taliban and had handed over the district buildings to the militants, provincial Police Chief Khan Mohammad Mujahid told Reuters. The district police chief, meanwhile, had been taken prisoner, he said.
The provincial governor confirmed the attack. “I know that last night there was an attack on the district and the preliminary investigations show that basically they have taken over the district,” Shir Khosti told Reuters. “But right now we are dispatching our forces to recapture the district.”
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the insurgents had taken the district by force and had killed nine policemen.
Governor Khosti denied the Taliban claim saying they had “no reports” of any casualties. Asked if the Taliban still had control of the district the governor said: “We believe they are still there. Our forces are going in there right now.” But a resident told Reuters that after patrolling the town’s bazaar for six to seven hours on motorbikes, the Taliban left the area.
The Taliban from time to time take over remote towns in a show of strength, then pull out before government forces are able to reach the area and drive them out.
Khosti played down any significance of the latest incident. “I don’t think they are getting stronger,” he said. “These are just a bunch of criminals, a bunch of thugs.”
Some 6,000 people were killed last year in the worst violence since U.S.-led and Afghan troops toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The Taliban have vowed to step up their campaign this year to oust the pro-Western Afghan government and drive out more than 60,000 foreign troops from the country, but so far neither side appears to have gained a clear upper hand.