MAZAR-E-SHARIF (NYTIMES) - The Taleban carried out the biggest known capture of Afghan soldiers of the war, taking 150 prisoners after they chased units into neighbouring Turkmenistan and that country forced them back, Afghan officials said on Sunday (March 17).
The operation took place in the north-western Afghan province of Badghis, and brought to 190 the number of soldiers captured by insurgents in the hotly contested district of Murghab - with 16 more soldiers killed - in less than a week.
Last Monday (March 11), an entire Afghan army company was killed or captured there. By Saturday, its defenders said the district had fallen mostly into Taleban control, though Afghan forces were still holding the district's government centre.
The latest capture was perhaps the biggest setback for the Afghan security forces since a Taleban offensive in August in the south-eastern city of Ghazni killed as many as 200 soldiers and police officers, but few prisoners were taken then.
The biggest recent capture of soldiers by the Taleban was about 50 who surrendered after a siege of their base, known as Chinese Camp, in Faryab province, also in August.
Mr Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a military analyst and retired general, expressed alarm at the losses.
"I have not seen or heard of such a big loss in the Afghan army in recent years," Mr Yarmand said. "If these numbers are true, then it's the biggest capture by the Taleban at one time and in the same area. This is a very sad incident."
The episode consisted of two days of attacks by the Taleban in the Morichaq area of the city of Bala Murghab against two units of the Afghan Border Forces.
Early on Saturday, 50 soldiers from the force surrendered, and an additional 100 fled Taleban pursuit and crossed the nearby border into Turkmenistan, according to commander Saleh Mohammad Mubarez of the Afghan police in the district. By the end of the day, he said on Sunday, Turkmenistan had forced them back into Taleban hands.
Mr Habibullah, a deputy company commander in Badghis, who uses only one name, also confirmed the surrenders.
"Turkmenistan told the Taleban, 'We will give the border force soldiers' weapons to the Afghanistan government and give you the border force soldiers', but the Taleban said that you should give the troops to the Afghan government and give us their weapons," he said.
Last Saturday, some Afghan officials played down the capture, saying the soldiers who had crossed into Turkmenistan would be returned to the government side.
Mr Jamshid Shahabi, a spokesman for the Badghis provincial governor, said the escape towards Turkmenistan by the 100 soldiers had been part of a previously arranged security plan.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, Mr Qais Mangal, said that those who had surrendered were not regular soldiers, but irregular militia fighters. But numerous local officials said they were indeed regular soldiers with the border forces, which are part of the Afghan army.
On Sunday, Mr Mangal said he did not immediately have any further details on the border episode. There was no public comment by the authorities in Turkmenistan.
Afghan authorities did send reinforcements to Murghab District, which has been under heavy attack for two weeks, but local officials said that they had been insufficient.
"The situation is very bad: The district is on the verge of collapse," Mr Mubarez said. "The reinforcements have not been enough. The air force must help and launch air strikes."
Mr Shahabi, the spokesman for the Badghis governor, said: "The air force is ready to strike but the Taleban use civilians' homes as shelters, so the air force cannot launch strikes."
Mr Farid Akhezi, a member of the provincial council in Badghis, also confirmed the surrender of 150 border force soldiers last Saturday.
The Taleban wiped out an entire Afghan National Army company in the same district last Monday, killing 16 soldiers and taking 40 prisoners. Over the course of the week, 44 Afghan security force members were confirmed killed in Taleban assaults in Badghis, in addition to the 190 reported to be taken prisoner.
The Taleban said that they had taken the Morichaq area and captured all the Afghan forces there, but the insurgents actually had lower estimates of the number of prisoners than government officials had given.
A spokesman for the Taleban, Zabiullah Mujahid, said on his Twitter account that they had captured 72 soldiers and police officers in the fighting in Bala Murghab and killed many others. He also posted photographs showing what he said were prisoners; more than 60 are visible in them, although it was not possible to confirm the authenticity of the pictures.
Taleban treatment of government prisoners varies widely around the country. In some cases they are imprisoned, in others tortured and executed. More often, however, they are released after promising not to rejoin the fight.
In an unrelated attack elsewhere in north-western Afghanistan, the Taleban overran an Afghan National Army base in the district of Qaisar in Faryab province, killing 15 soldiers and five police officers in hours of fighting on Saturday night and Sunday morning, according to the governor of the district, Mr Rahmatullah Qaisari.
"This morning when our forces went to recover the corpses, the Taleban had hidden bombs under the bodies, which went off and killed two policemen," he said. That took the death toll there to 22.
Mr Mangal, the Defence Ministry spokesman, said of the attack on the Qaisar base: "There were casualties, but I do not have information about the exact number. The attack was repelled."