KABUL, Afghanistan – An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a Taliban commander, while in southern Helmand province a government commando unit freed 54 people from a Taliban jail, according to officials.
The stepped up activity in Afghanistan comes as Washington considers a Taliban demand for direct talks in hopes of jump-starting a negotiated end to what is now the longest military engagement by U.S. forces.
A Taliban official in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar where the Islamic insurgency maintains an unofficial office told The Associated Press they wanted direct talks and were ready to put troop withdrawal as well as any outstanding concerns the U.S. might have on the table but so far no official request to open negotiations has come from Washington.
Speaking on condition he not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, he said de-listing Taliban leaders from U.S and U.N. watch lists and recognizing their office in Doha, the Qatar capital, would aid progress in talks should they begin.
Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan's Sar-i-Pul province, Abdul Qayuom Baqizoi, provincial police chief, said Tuesday's attack by IS took place as village elders met with Taliban officials. He said 15 of the 20 killed were local elders and five were Taliban, including a Taliban commander.
The Taliban and the Islamic State group have been waging bitter battles in recent days in northern Afghanistan. As many as 100 insurgents from both the Taliban and Islamic State group have perished in recent battles, said Baqizoi.
Provincial council chief Mohammed Noor Rahman, however, said the explosion occurred in a mosque as a funeral was taking place.
The area is remote and it was impossible to reconcile the differing accounts.
Elsewhere, in southern Helmand's Musa Qala district, a commando unit stormed into a jail late Monday that Taliban insurgents had been operating. There they found 32 civilians, 16 police, four soldiers and two military doctors, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor.
The Taliban did not immediately comment on the raid, but the insurgents are in control of the majority of the districts in Helmand, where they have increased their attacks against provincial officials and security forces.
The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with the U.S. The militants maintained that position despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's unilateral extension of a holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to the bargaining table. When the Taliban continued to mount deadly attacks, Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.
Trump administration officials said Monday for the first time that the U.S. would be open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war. They said that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations remain the goal of any engagement with the militants, however.
That marks a tactical shift by the administration, which previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involved the Afghan government. The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.
The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security force members.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It still has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.