A day after President Ashraf Ghani announced another unilateral cease-fire, Taliban insurgents ambushed a convoy of buses in northern Afghanistan on Monday and held more than 100 people hostage for several hours.
By day’s end, all but 12 had been released following negotiations between the insurgents and local community elders, according to an Afghan military official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The brazen attack defied Ghani’s announcement on Sunday that the government would observe a temporary cease-fire against the Taliban to mark the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday, one of the most important on the Muslim calendar.
The truce could be extended for up to three months, and was conditional on the Taliban reciprocating – but it has not. A Taliban spokesman told the Reuters news agency Monday that the group had rejected the cease-fire, arguing it would aid the U.S.-led military coalition, but the group had not issued a formal statement.
Ghani announced a similar cease-fire in June, after which the Taliban declared one of its own. Hostilities eased for a few days, but since then the resurgent militant group has continued to test the Afghan security forces.
Last week the Taliban waged a major offensive against the city of Ghazni that ended only after Afghan commanders sent hundreds of reinforcements and U.S. warplanes carried out airstrikes that killed at least 140 suspected insurgents, according to coalition forces. At least 100 soldiers and 20 civilians were killed in days of fighting.
Monday’s ambush came as the convoy of three buses was traveling along a highway in Kunduz province, much of which is controlled or threatened by the Taliban, Afghan officials said.
Ismat Muradi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said more than 100 passengers were abducted around 3:30 a.m. and taken to an area of the province under Taliban influence.
Afghan security forces responded and engaged in a brief battle with the insurgents but then pulled back, wanting to avoid endangering the hostages, according to the Afghan military official. Civilian elders were negotiating to free all the passengers, officials said.
The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed the incident in messages to the news media, claiming that the group’s fighters stopped the buses based on intelligence that members of the Afghan security forces were among the passengers.
“The passengers have not been taken hostage,” he said. “There was a need to search for the [Afghan forces] so the buses have been taken to a ‘safe’ location for further searching. The rest of the passengers will be released.”
U.S. officials have reportedly met with senior Taliban leaders in recent weeks to explore the possibility of direct negotiations to end 17 years of fighting. On Saturday the Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a statement saying that the “lone option” to end the war was for the U.S. “to end the occupation of Afghanistan and nothing more.”