KABUL -- At least two dozen Afghan security personnel were killed Friday (March 20) in an insider attack on their base in southern Afghanistan, officials told AFP, as efforts to start talks with the Taliban stalled.
The pre-dawn attack in Zabul Province comes as Afghanistan is grappling with several crises including an increase in Taliban violence that has thrown a supposed peace process into turmoil and a mounting number of coronavirus cases.
The attack in Zabul saw several "infiltrators" open fire on their comrades as they slept, according to Provincial Governor Rahmatullah Yarmal. It was one of the deadliest attacks since the United States signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban last month.
The pre-dawn raid targeted a joint police and army headquarters near Qalat, the provincial capital.
"In the attack, 14 Afghan army forces and 10 policemen were killed," Zabul Provincial Council Chairman Haji Atajan Haq Bayan said.
Four other Afghan service members are missing, he added.
"The attackers had connections with the Taliban insurgents," Bayan said.
They fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with a pickup truck, weapons and ammunition.
Yarmal confirmed the toll to AFP.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, blamed the Taliban.
“The Afghan Government strongly condemns the Taliban attack on the Afghan Security&Defense Forces in Zabul province in which many lost their lives. This heinous act of the Taliban is a clear example of their commitment for continued violence and against the AFG peace process,” he said in a Twitter post.
Zabul Province has long been an insurgent stronghold and was the holdout for former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who died in 2013.
Both the Taliban and Afghan government in Kabul continue to bicker over a proposed prisoner swap.
Ghani on March 11 signed a decree on the planned release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a key Taliban demand for starting face-to-face peace negotiations with the Afghan government in the Taliban's agreement with the United States.
The Taliban wanted them freed all at once before talks could begin, while Kabul intended to release them in phases, conditioned on good behaviour by the Taliban.
The Afghan government sought a reduction in violence by the Taliban, a guarantee that released fighters will not return to the battlefield and the start of direct peace talks as conditions for the prisoners' release.
Because the Taliban rejected the terms set forth in Ghani's decree, the Afghan government never released an initial batch of 1,500 Taliban members as it originally planned to do in a gesture of goodwill.
Coronavirus threat looms
The Zabul attack comes just a day after Afghan Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid called on the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire as a way of tackling the novel coronavirus, which observers fear is spreading unchecked.
"Our proposal is that to prevent this plague, a ceasefire should come so that we would be able to prevent it and treat people in every corner of the country," Khalid said in a televised statement.
Afghanistan had 24 confirmed cases as of March 20, according to its Health Ministry, but only about 300 people have been tested in the country of some 35 million. In its neighbour Iran, more than 1,000 people have died from the highly contagious virus.
Afghan forces should assume a more aggressive "active defence" posture against the Taliban, said Khalid. The insurgent group has continued attacks across the country since signing a deal with the United States on February 29.
In a tweet March 20 marking Nawruz, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the Taliban deal, called for Afghan leaders to take advantage of the "historic opportunity for peace" and work with the Taliban to contain the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Iranian security forces are rounding up thousands of Afghan refugees suspected or confirmed to have the coronavirus and forcibly deporting them to Afghanistan with no regard for international safeguards meant to protect the world from the spread of the deadly pandemic.
About 70,000 Afghans have returned from Iran in the past 20 days, AFP reported Monday (March 16). They are overwhelming health workers at border crossings and raising fears of a major outbreak in the impoverished country.
More health workers and better testing facilities are needed to cope with the increasing number of returnees and avoid a health disaster, warned Ahmad Jawid Nadem, director of the Department of Refugees and Repatriations in Herat Province, which borders Iran.
Health workers "only ask (returnees) some questions and test their temperature", Nadem told AFP. "This is not enough."