At least 50 members of the Taliban militant group have been killed or injured in airstrikes by the Afghan government forces in two of the conflict-ridden country’s provinces.
Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that 33 Taliban militants had been killed and 17 others injured airstrikes in the northern Jowzjan Province and the southern province of Helmand.
“In Jowzjan Province, 19 militants were killed and 15 wounded after warplanes targeted militants' hideouts in Murghab and Hassan Tabbin villages on the outskirts of provincial capital Shiberghan,” the ministry said in the statement.
“Fourteen Taliban, including two non-Afghan militants, lost their lives and two others wounded when the air force struck their position on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, capital of southern Helmand province,” it added.
The ministry also said three vehicles, six motorcycles, two bunkers and a big cache of weapons and ammunition belonging to the Taliban militants were destroyed.
The militants are believed to control about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.
The Afghan government has imposed a night-time curfew over much of the country as it tries to deter the Taliban from advancing into key urban areas.
Aside from Kabul and two other provinces, no movement will be allowed between 22:00 and 04:00 in the other 31 provinces.
Dozens of civilians killed in Taliban-held areas in Kandahar
The development came as Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said earlier in the day that 33 Afghan civilians had been killed in Taliban-held areas in the southern province of Kandahar over the past two weeks.
“Religious scholars, tribal elders, civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders and female journalists are being sacrificed in targeted attacks,” said Zabihullah Farhang, a spokesman of AIHRC. “Any group that resorts to harming civilians is conducting a war crime under the rules of war.”
According to local media reports, hundreds of people in the districts that have fallen to the Taliban in Kandahar were detained and some were killed by the militants over their alleged association with the Afghan government and its security institutions.
“There are grave concerns that Taliban forces in Kandahar may commit further atrocities to retaliate against the government and security forces.” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population.”
Afghan media reports said on Thursday that unidentified gunmen killed "over 100 civilians" in Spin Boldak area of Kandahar, along the border with Pakistan.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior confirmed the reports, saying these civilians were killed without any reason.
The Afghan government blamed the Taliban for the murder of civilians in the area.
US-led foreign forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades of war and occupation.
The US and NATO allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the pretext that the Taliban militants were harboring al-Qaeda, which had just been blamed for the "9/11 attacks" in the US. The invasion removed the Taliban from power, but it worsened the security situation in the country.
The Taliban militants are now intensifying their attacks. Many experts have blamed the US and its NATO allies for the surge in violence in Afghanistan, saying they have failed to stabilize the security situation in the country.
Over the past months, Afghan forces have been engaged in fierce clashes with the Taliban to reclaim the lost territories and restore relative calm across the country.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that the Afghan security forces' first job was to make sure they could slow the Taliban's momentum before attempting to retake territory.
Austin's comments come as Afghan government troops plan to concentrate forces around the most critical areas like the capital, Kabul, and other cities, border crossings and vital infrastructure.
"They are consolidating their forces around the key population centers," Austin told reporters during a visit to Alaska. "In terms of whether or not it will stop the Taliban, I think the first thing to do is to make sure that they can slow the momentum."
The Pentagon chief added that he believed the Afghans had the capability and the capacity to make progress, but “we'll see what happens.”
Taliban behead Afghan interpreter
American media reports said a US military local translator, identified as Sohail Pardis, had been decapitated by Taliban militants in Afghanistan's southeastern province of Khost.
The CNN reported that Pardis was shot at and dragged from his vehicle while attempting to flee a Taliban checkpoint on a road in Khost.
“Pardis was pulled from his automobile and beaten, shot, then beheaded,” witnesses said.
Pardis, 30, had worked as an interpreter and had applied to be relocated to America amid the withdrawal of US forces, but his case was dismissed.
The Afghan translator had told his friend just days before that he was receiving death threats from the Taliban after they found out he had assisted US army troops during their campaign in the country.
American forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by September, ending the longest war in US history.
The White House is negotiating to resettle some of its Afghan employees, including translators, drivers and others, in third countries – possibly Qatar and Kuwait-- until their US visas come through.
Local employees, who fear retribution for working with US forces against the Afghan Taliban militants, have been promised to receive Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) by the White House.