The Taliban killed at least 16 people and kidnapped dozens of others on Tuesday after pulling them from buses in northern Afghanistan, officials said, in the latest assault since the insurgents named a new leader last week.
The Taliban have so far not commented on the incident in Aliabad district in the volatile province of Kunduz, where the insurgents briefly overran the provincial capital in a stunning military victory last year.
“The Taliban shot dead 16 passengers and they are still holding more than 30 others,” said Sayed Mahmood Danish, spokesman for the governor of Kunduz.
Police commander Shir Aziz Kamawal gave a death toll of 17.
Around 200 passengers were travelling in the buses when they were stopped by the Taliban.
“They (Taliban) 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 that the Taliban were holding an informal court in a local mosque, scrutinising the ID documents of the passengers and interrogating them for any government links.
Highways around Afghanistan passing through insurgency prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taliban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping and killing travellers.
Civilians are increasingly caught in the cross hairs of Afghanistan’s worsening conflict as the Taliban step up their annual spring offensive, launched last month against the Western backed Kabul government.
The Afghan Taliban 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 Taliban leader on Pakistani soil, sent shock waves 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 confirmation of founder Mullah Omar’s death.
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 Taliban, 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.