MAZAR-E-SHARIF • 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.
Last week's 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 Bala Murghab - with 16 more soldiers killed - in less than a week.
Last Monday, 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 last 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; they surrendered after a siege of their base, known as Chinese Camp, in Faryab province. Both incidents took place in August.
Military analyst Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a 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," he 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 incident consisted of two days of attacks by the Taleban in the Morichaq area of Bala Murghab against two units of the Afghan Border Forces.
Early last Saturday, 50 soldiers from the force surrendered, and an additional 100 fled Taleban pursuit and crossed the nearby border into Turkmenistan, according to Afghan police commander Saleh Mohammad Mubarez on Sunday.
By the end of the day, he said, Turkmenistan had forced them back into Taleban hands.
However, some Afghan officials played down the capture.
The Badghis provincial governor's spokesman Jamshid Shahabi said the escape towards Turkmenistan by the 100 soldiers had been part of a previously arranged security plan.