Hostages released after Taleban attack

Hundreds flee to provincial capital as militants, along with ISIS fighters, kill civilians in northern Afghan village

SAR-E PUL, AFGHANISTAN • The Taleban and ISIS militants yesterday released 235 villagers held after the insurgents captured a village in the northern Afghan province of Sar-e Pul, but the government faced growing pressure over why it had taken so long for security forces to arrive in the area.

Provincial Governor Zahir Wahdat said the people from Mirza Olang village had arrived in Sar-e Pul, the main town of the northern province, after elders and provincial officials struck a deal with the group.

Army spokesman Nasratullah Jamshidi said Afghan forces launched an operation yesterday to retake the district, which was overrun at the weekend. "We will avenge the blood of our innocent people," Mr Wahdat told reporters.

But he expressed impatience at the length of time it was taking to begin the operation and said he would offer to resign if the delay continued. "If there is no clearance operation in the area soon, I will resign," he said.

President Ashraf Ghani has vowed "revenge" for the attack but there was little visible sign that security forces were ready to begin.

"We have very little ammunition left," said one soldier in the village of Qaflaton, down the hill from Mirza Olang, who gave his name as Fawad. "We need more forces, equipment and air support," he said.

Insurgents took the village during the weekend, after overrunning a government-backed militia and killing as many as 50 people, including women and children, said officials.

Survivors fleeing the violence described nightmarish scenes, detailing how the militants went from house to house, shooting villagers.

The Taleban said the attack was launched by one of its commanders. But officials said the insurgents included Taleban fighters as well as others loyal to an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), normally bitter rivals of the Taleban.

Villager Yasin Abuzar said ISIS and Taleban fighters cut off the main roads to the area before launching a killing spree. "I could rescue only my kids. When they entered our village, they opened fire at everyone indiscriminately. They didn't even spare women and children," he said, adding that hundreds were still missing.

Mr Wahdat said as many as 450 families had fled the fighting, which has underscored the lack of government control in many areas of Afghanistan and deepened public anger at the growing insecurity.

Local officials called for more aid as hundreds of displaced arrived in the provincial capital. "The families who have come to Sar-e Pul need shelter and food. They are living in the mosques and schools, with their relatives and some even on the streets," Mr Zabiullah Amani, a provincial spokesman, told AFP. "If aid agencies don't help, we will face a humanitarian crisis," he added.

The villagers said most of those killed were Shi'ites and Hazaras who were either shot or beheaded. ISIS has given a sectarian twist to the Afghan conflict, with a number of deadly attacks on Shi'ites in the past year.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Hostages released after Taleban attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe