Taleban kill 16 bus passengers in northern Afghanistan

Afghan security personnel prepare for an operation against Taleban militants in Kunduz province on May 31, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AFP) - The Taleban killed at least 16 people on Tuesday (May 31) and kidnapped dozens of others after pulling them off buses in northern Afghanistan, officials said, the latest assault since the insurgents named a new leader last week.

The Taleban claimed they were targeting Afghan security officials aboard the buses passing through Aliabad district in the province of Kunduz, where the insurgents briefly overran the provincial capital in a stunning military victory last year.

Around 200 passengers were travelling in four buses towards Kabul when they were waylaid by Taleban gunmen, with some killed on the side of the road at point-blank range, officials said.

"The Taleban shot dead 16 passengers and they are still holding more than 30 others," said Sayed Mahmood Danish, spokesman for the governor of Kunduz.

Regional police commander Shir Aziz Kamawal gave a death toll of 17 and did not clearly confirm the identities of the passengers.

"They (Taleban) have released some passengers but are holding many others. None of the passengers were wearing military uniform but some may have been former police," he said.

Residents of insurgency-prone Aliabad told AFP the Taleban were holding an informal court in a local mosque, scrutinising the ID documents of the abducted passengers and interrogating them for any government links.

"We had precise intelligence that 26 Afghan commandoes and police were among the passengers," Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP, adding that six of them were killed while trying to escape.

Highways around Afghanistan passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taleban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers.

Civilians are increasingly caught in the crosshairs of Afghanistan's worsening conflict as the Taleban step up their annual spring offensive, launched in April against the Western-backed Kabul government.

Tuesday's incident comes a day after the Taleban overran multiple police checkpoints in Helmand, the first major assault in the opium-rich southern province since the leadership transition.

The Taleban last Wednesday announced Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader, elevating a low-profile religious figure in a swift power transition after officially confirming the death of Mullah Mansour in a US drone strike.

The drone attack, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taleban leader on Pakistani soil, sent shockwaves through the insurgent movement, which had seen a resurgence under Mansour.

He was killed just nine months after being formally appointed leader following a bitter power struggle upon the confirmation of the death of Taleban founder Mullah Omar.

US President Barack Obama, who authorised the drone strikes, said Mansour had rejected efforts "to seriously engage in peace talks", asserting that direct negotiations with the Afghan government were the only way to end the attritional conflict.

The US killing of Mansour showed that Washington has at least for now abandoned hopes of reviving the direct peace talks between Kabul and the Taleban, which broke down last summer.

Observers say Akhundzada, who is seen as more of a spiritual figurehead than a military commander, will emulate Mansour in shunning peace talks with the Afghan government..

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