By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi
KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 19 people in an attack on a government office on Saturday night, officials said, in the latest episode of violence in Afghanistan as peace talks continue to end the war.
Election workers were registering voters ahead of presidential elections in September at an office in the Maroof district of the southern Kandahar province when fighters of the hardline Islamist group launched an attack using four Humvee vehicles, officials said.
Eight election workers were killed, they said. Eleven Afghan security force members were also killed alongside the four suicide bombers, said Tadeen Khan, the police chief of Kandahar.
The Taliban, which rejects the election process, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said the group’s fighters also killed 57 members of the Afghan security forces in the attack and captured 11 others, but Afghan officials disputed the account.
The interior ministry in a statement said 25 Taliban insurgents were killed in the clash.
The Taliban, which controls or contests half the country, more than at any time since being overthrown by the U.S. invasion in 2001, has rejected calls for a ceasefire.
Fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces has intensified even as leaders of the Taliban and U.S. officials hold peace talks in Qatar to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan.
In a separate attack, Taliban fighters killed eight Afghan soldiers and injured eight others at a military checkpoint in Balabulak district in the western province of Farah, a local official said.
Mahmood Naemi, the deputy chief of the Farah council, said the clashes ended after Afghan forces launched air strikes.
“Many Taliban fighters were killed in the air strike,” said Naemi.
In the northern province of Takhar, over 600 villagers fled as Taliban fighters seized large areas of the province during heavy fighting in recent days, government officials said.
The pace of talks between the United States and Taliban in Doha has sped up as Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on September 28.
Qatar’s government, which is mediating the peace process between the United States and the Taliban, on Sunday said the two sides discussed the withdrawal of foreign troops, preventing militants from using Afghanistan to harm the United States or other countries and a comprehensive ceasefire.
“They (U.S. and Taliban) also stressed the mutual desire of both sides to move quickly and make tangible progress,” the ministry said.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
The Taliban wants a complete withdrawal of foreign forces before they hold talks with the Afghan government or declare a ceasefire.
(Reporting by Sarwar Amani in Kandahar, Storay Karimi, Jalil Ahmad Rezayee in Herat, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Deepa Babington)