KABUL (Reuters) – More than 50 senior Taliban commanders were killed in an artillery strike on a meeting in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, a U.S. military spokesman said on Wednesday, as fighting continued across the country.
Details of last week’s operation emerged as fighting continued in other parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban, aiming to restore their version of hardline Islamic law, launched their annual spring offensive last month.
Gunmen in Kabul, the capital, attacked the heavily fortified interior ministry, battling security forces for more than two hours before the assault was suppressed.
There were also serious incidents in Takhar province in the north, in Loghar, east of the capital, and Kandahar in the south, keeping up a pattern of attacks across the country.
The U.S. military said the May 24 meeting in Helmand’s district of Musa Qala involved commanders from a number of Afghan provinces, including neighbouring Farah, where Taliban fighters this month briefly threatened to overrun the provincial capital.
“We think the meeting was to plan next steps,” said Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While the strike by an artillery rocket system would disrupt Taliban operations, it would not necessarily mean any interruption to the fighting, he said.
However, the attack in one of the heartlands of the Taliban insurgency was a significant blow to the insurgents, he said.
“It’s certainly a notable strike,” he said, adding that several other senior and lower level commanders had been killed during operations over a 10-day period this month.
The Taliban dismissed the report as “propaganda” and said the attack had hit two civilian houses in Musa Qala, killing five civilians and wounding three.
“This was a civilian residential area, which had no connection with the Taliban,” spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi said in a statement.
In the northern province of Takhar, Taliban fighters in the Dasht-e Qala district centre captured the governor’s compound and police headquarters on Wednesday but heavy fighting was continuing, police spokesman Khalil Aseer said.
In Loghar, the Taliban claimed an attack on a police station in the provincial capital, Pul-e Alam, which killed three police and wounded 12, among them four police and eight civilians.
Shahpoor Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said three attackers who sought to enter the police station in the early morning hours triggered a three-hour gunbattle that ended when all three were killed.
Elsewhere, three civilians were killed and 13 wounded by an explosion in the southern city of Kandahar that appeared to have targeted a mechanics’ workshop repairing Afghan army vehicles, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie, Samiullah Paiwand, Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)