Afghan forces free 149 people taken by Taliban, 21 still held

Afghan forces have rescued 149 people, including women and children, who were abducted by the Taliban just hours earlier in northern Kunduz province, officials say.

President had called for ceasefire with Taliban during Eid al-Adha holiday

An Afghan firefighter sprays water on burning shops after a Taliban attack in Ghazni city, Afghanistan, last month. (Mustafa Andaleb/Reuters)

Afghan forces on Monday rescued 149 people, including women and children, abducted by the Taliban just hours earlier in northern Kunduz province, officials said.

By mid-afternoon, fighting was still underway to free 21 remaining hostages, they said.

The operation was a boost for Afghan forces, which have struggled to contain a resurgent Taliban on battlefields across the country.

On Monday morning, the Taliban ambushed a convoy of three buses travelling on a road in the Khan Abad district and forced everyone to come with them, according to Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesperson for the Interior Ministry.

Rahimi said that after Afghan security forces freed 149, the insurgents were still holding 21 hostages from the buses. At least seven Taliban fighters had been killed in the fighting so far, he said.

The ambush came despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's announcement of a conditional ceasefire with the Taliban during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha this week.

The Taliban has stepped up assaults in recent months, seizing entire districts across Afghanistan and regularly carrying out large-scale bombings and attacks that have killed scores of people.

Brazen abduction

Esmatullah Muradi, spokesperson for the provincial governor in Kunduz, also confirmed the rescue of the hostages.

According to Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, head of the provincial council in Kunduz, the Taliban was likely looking for government employees or members of the security forces who usually go home for the holidays.

Abdul Rahman Aqtash, police chief in neighbouring Takhar province, said the passengers were from Badakhshan and Takhar provinces and travelling to the capital, Kabul.

Taliban fighters gather with residents to celebrate a three-day ceasefire in June marking the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghan. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

In his call on Sunday for the truce, Ghani said "the ceasefire should be observed from both sides, and its continuation and duration also depend on the Taliban's stand."

Ghani made the announcement during celebrations of the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan's independence, a day after the leader of the Afghan Taliban said there will be no peace in the country as long as the "foreign occupation" continues.

The militant leader, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah, reiterated the group's position that the country's 17-year war can only be brought to an end through direct talks with the United States.

In a message released on the occasion of Eid al-Adha — and without pointing to any ceasefire — the Taliban leader said Saturday that the insurgents remain committed to "Islamic goals," the sovereignty of Afghanistan and ending the war.

For his part, Ghani said he hoped extensions could also be agreed upon to make the ceasefire last until Nov. 20, which will mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad.

The government had previously announced a ceasefire with the Taliban during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June. The Taliban accepted that three-day ceasefire, but later rejected a call by the president to extend it.​