Taliban killed 20 Afghan soldiers in Helmand

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KUNDUZ: The Taliban killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in a string of overnight attacks, the United States on Wednesday conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

“Taliban fighters attacked at least three army outposts in Imam Sahib district of Kunduz last night, killing at least 10 soldiers and four police,” said a member of the provincial council Safiullah Amiri.

A defence ministry official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity confirmed the army toll, while the provincial police spokesman Hejratullah Akbari confirmed the police fatalities.

The insurgents also attacked police in central Uruzgan province on Tuesday night, with the governor's spokesman Zergai Ebadi telling AFP: “Unfortunately, six police were killed and seven wounded”.

The violence has cast a pall on the nascent Afghan peace process, with the insurgents clashing with Kabul over a prisoner exchange ahead of talks that are due to begin on March 10.

Meanwhile, the United States conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in the southern Helmand province, a US forces spokesman said, the first strike since the troop withdrawal agreement was signed.

The Taliban fighters were "were actively attacking an (Afghan National Security Forces) checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack," said a spokesman for the US Forces in Afghanistan Colonel Sonny Leggett.

In a tweet, he said Washington was committed to peace but called on the Taliban to stop "needless attacks" and uphold their commitments, alluding to the deal signed on Saturday.

The attacks came to light hours after US President Donald Trump said he had had a “very good” chat with the insurgents' political chief.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he had “a very good talk with the leader of the Taliban”, without naming him.

The 35-minute call came a day after the militants ended a partial truce and threw into doubt peace talks between Kabul and the militants that are due to begin on March 10, according to the US-Taliban agreement signed on Saturday.

A transcript of the phone call released by the Taliban quoted fighter-turned-negotiator Mullah Baradar urging Trump to “take determined actions in regard to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan”.

Peace deal
Under the terms of the US-Taliban agreement signed on Saturday, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.

But a dispute over a prisoner swap has raised questions about whether the negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban will go ahead.

The latest deadlock emerged after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, just a day after the deal was signed in Doha, rejected a clause relating to the swap of prisoners. "There is no commitment to releasing 5,000 [Taliban] prisoners," he had said.

The militant Taliban group responded to Ghani's statement by ruling out intra-Afghan talks unless prisoners were released. A day later, a spokesman for the militant group announced the start of attacks against the Kabul administration.

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