KANDAHAR -- Dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in fierce overnight fighting between Afghan forces and militants who attacked multiple checkpoints in Kandahar, officials said Sunday (December 13).
Taliban militants attacked checkpoints in five districts surrounding the city of Kandahar, which Afghan forces countered with heavy air and ground assaults, the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in a statement.
"The security forces repulsed the attack, killing 51 terrorists and wounding nine," the ministry said, without offering details of any casualties among government forces.
Seven members of a family were killed in an Afghan air strike in one of the districts, a local official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The Afghan air force wanted to target a car filled with explosives... when they hit the car, it detonated and caused civilian fatalities," he said.
The MoD said it was investigating the incident.
The fighting lasted for several hours through the night, marked with continuous gun battles and heavy bombardments, an AFP correspondent reported from Kandahar.
Kandahar Province is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and over the past few weeks, militants have launched attacks in districts on the outskirts of the provincial capital.
International coalition forces have repeatedly pledged to support Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) if they come under Taliban attack.
The US Air Force targeted Taliban militants after the group attacked the ANDSF in Zhari District, Kandahar Province on December 10, US military spokesman in Afghanistan Col. Sonny Leggett said December 11.
"This strike in defence of the ANDSF is [in accordance with] the US-Taliban agreement," Leggett said in a Twitter post. "The Taliban's claim of civilian casualties are false."
The Taliban launched a similar offensive in Helmand Province in September that sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing.
That attack, which also targeted the provincial capital of Lashkargah, prompted the US military to call in air strikes to defend Afghan forces.
Since the US-Taliban deal in February, the insurgents have not carried out major attacks on key cities but have launched near-daily assaults on Afghan forces in rural areas.
Under that agreement, the United States agreed to withdraw all foreign forces by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees and a Taliban pledge to hold talks with Kabul.
The surge in violence in recent months comes as the Taliban and Afghan government engage in peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
The negotiations started on September 12 but then made little progress for several weeks.
The talks have made headway this month, with the two sides setting out a code of conduct that will allow the process to move to the next stage of setting out the agenda for negotiations.
Pause in peace talks
On Saturday (December 12), the two sides announced a pause until January 5.
"Since the agenda items need further consultations, the two sides agreed for a recess and to resume the 2nd round of talks on January 5, 2021," tweeted Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted an almost identical statement but added that from Monday (December 14), there would be "consultations" on the agenda items.
The Afghan government is calling for that next round to take place in Afghanistan.
"We would prefer the second round of peace talks to take place inside Afghanistan," Ghani told a cabinet meeting, his spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, tweeted. "It is not appropriate to insist on holding talks in luxurious hotels. It is necessary that the people see how the talks happen, which issues are focussed on and why."
Javid Faisal, an adviser to the Afghan National Security Council, confirmed the pause, adding that Kabul was keen for the next round of negotiations to take place in Afghanistan.
"Bring talks home, the important proposal of the Afghan government to the Taliban," he tweeted.
"The remaining stages of peace talks between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban must be pursued inside the country," Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib tweeted in Pashu December 12.
"The government does not have a location in mind and is ready to negotiate in any part of the country that the Taliban offer; it is willing to build a facility there [specifically for the talks]," he said.
In recent months, Kabul has seen several deadly attacks claimed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), including a rocket attack December 12 that killed one civilian.
On December 13, a bomb planted on a vehicle killed two civilians in the capital, police said.