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Afghan Forces Free 149 Hostages Seized By Taliban


According to reports, Afghan security forces were deployed and at least seven Taliban fighters were killed. (file photo)

Afghan officials say government security forces on August 20 freed 149 people who were taken hostage by the Taliban several hours earlier in the northern province of Kunduz.

Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said the militants continued to hold 21 others hostage on August 20 after they ambushed a convoy of passenger buses traveling to Kabul for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The buses were stopped in the province's Khan Abad district, an area under Taliban control -- prompting a battle against government forces deployed in a rescue operation.

Rahimi said the rescue operation had killed at least seven Taliban fighters, but the captors had taken the remaining 21 hostages to an undisclosed location.

Esmatullah Muradi, a spokesman for the provincial governor in Kunduz, confirmed the rescue of 149 hostages -- including women and children.

Sayed Assadullah Sadat, a Kunduz provincial council member, said the buses "were packed with people and maybe there were army soldiers and police" among those taken hostage.

A Taliban spokesman later confirmed that members of the Afghan security forces were among the hostages.

The incident comes despite President Ashraf Ghani's call for a cease-fire with the Taliban during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, says the insurgents stopped the three buses on the road on August 20 near the Khan Abad district.

He said he thinks the Taliban were looking for government employees or members of the security forces.

Abdul Rahman Aqtash, the police chief in neighboring Takhar province, says the passengers were from Badakhshan and Takhar provinces.

On August 19, Ghani called a "conditional" cease-fire with the Taliban to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday, just hours after insurgents said they had seized a district center in the northern province of Faryab.

The cease-fire was due to commence on August 20 and run for three months.

U.S. Support

The United States said it welcomed the move, which is conditioned upon Taliban participation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that an earlier three-day cease-fire in June coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr holiday revealed the "deep desire" of the Afghan people to end the conflict, "and we hope another cease-fire will move the country closer to sustainable security."

"The United States and our international partners support this initiative by the Afghan people and the Afghan government, and we call on the Taliban to participate. It is our hope, and that of the international community, that the Afghan people may celebrate Eid al-Adha this year in peace, free from fear," the statement added.

The announcement came days after Taliban militants captured a military base in the same region.

Provincial Governor Naqibullah Fayeq said on August 19 that the Balcharagh district fell into the hands of Taliban fighters late on August 18 following several days of heavy clashes because the Afghan soldiers did not receive reinforcements.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Earlier this month, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan National Army base elsewhere in Faryab Province.

The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.

In a statement on August 18, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada repeated his call for direct talks with the United States to end what he said was the foreign "occupation" of Afghanistan.

Akhundzada said the militant group wanted "sincere, transparent, and result-oriented negotiations" with Washington, adding that any peace settlement negotiated between the two sides must "preserve our Islamic goals, sovereignty of our homeland, and ensure an end to the war."

Akhundzada, thought to be hiding in neighboring Pakistan, had previously said the militants would not negotiate with the Afghan government, which he labelled a "puppet."

With reporting by dpa, Tolo News, Reuters, and Khaama Press

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