Authorities in a troubled province south of the Afghan capital said Thursday that four police officers were killed, apparently while trying to escape Taliban custody, and that they may have been among a group of police who disappeared when their district was overrun by insurgents this week.
A surviving police officer was being questioned, the officials said.
The Taliban had claimed Monday that a group of about 16 police officers in the Khogyani district of Ghazni province had defected to the insurgency, and had actively participated in torching government buildings and vehicles before voluntarily leaving with the militants.
Provincial officials said the circumstances of the policemen's disappearance remained unclear, but acknowledged that the officers had not put up any resistance when insurgents swept into the district before dawn Monday and occupied its center for several hours.
A provincial spokesman, Ismail Jihangar, said it was probable that the dead men were part of the missing contingent. "The five policemen were trying to escape the insurgents' captivity, and four of them were killed," he said.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said he had heard of the discovery of the bodies but did not know anything more.
The incident illustrated the difficulty in sorting out allegiances in a culture in which antagonists often switch sides, and also the murkiness of events in remote areas where there is little real government authority.
Insurgents often stage successful strikes on isolated police posts. Western trainers who have worked with the Afghan police say it is difficult to persuade them of the importance of basic procedures such as having someone stay awake on guard duty.
But defections to the Taliban side are by no means unknown among the police, whose training and literacy levels are generally lower than those of army recruits.
Security in Ghazni — which lies on the main road between Kabul, the capital, and the south's main hub, the city of Kandahar — has steadily deteriorated in recent months, with the Taliban present in, or in control of, many areas.
In Kandahar province, insurgents assassinated an official described as a deputy education chief. Most such targeted killings are carried out by Taliban gunmen or suicide bombers.
The campaign of assassinations of government officials in Kandahar has continued despite what Western military officials describe as a highly successful drive to clear Taliban strongholds in districts surrounding the city of Kandahar.
The targeting of Afghan government workers has made it extremely difficult to recruit qualified personnel, although Western officials have described providing better governance and public services as a key follow-up to the military push in Kandahar.
Meanwhile, an Afghan rights group said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of people displaced by the fighting in Kandahar province. The group, the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, called for swift reconstruction efforts and warned that without them, there could be an angry anti-government and anti-Western backlash.
Fighting has also been heavy in neighboring Helmand province. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force said Thursday that numerous insurgents had been killed while Western and Afghan forces were trying to capture a man described as a senior Taliban leader in the strategic Kajaki district.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force says pinpoint raids over the last three months have killed or captured hundreds of midlevel Taliban commanders and thousands of lower-level fighters.
Also Thursday, the Western military reported the deaths of one NATO service member in the eastern part of the country and two others in the south, without disclosing their nationalities. Many U.S. troops serve in the east, but American forces are concentrated in the south, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.