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Afghan Taleban kill 21 soldiers, suspend prisoner swap attempt Karzai slams Pakistan for failing to ‘eliminate nests of terror’

 ASADABAD, Afghanistan, Feb 23, (Agencies): The Afghan Taleban killed 21 soldiers in an assault on Sunday in a remote mountainous region, the Afghan government said, and six soldiers were missing after the militants’ most deadly assault on the security forces in months. Afghan President Hamid Karzai slammed Pakistan for failing to “eliminate nests of terror”. Also on Sunday, in a possible blow to US efforts to foster peace talks to end the Afghan conflict, the Taleban said they had suspended efforts to arrange a possible exchange of Taleban and US prisoners due to the “complexity” of the situation.

It was not immediately clear whether the attack in the eastern province of Kunar was related to the suspension of talks on a prisoner swap. Government officials said 21 soldiers were killed and three were wounded in the attack on an army checkpoint in Kunar’s Ghaziabad district. Six remained missing, they said. The government sent reinforcements to the area where the pre-dawn attack took place, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said in a statement. The Taleban appeared to have been waiting for them. Azimi said the reinforcements “came under enemy attack, and a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near them”.

The suicide bomber did not kill any Afghan soldiers, Azimi said. In a possible reference to alQaeda or other militants who might not be part of the Afghan Taleban, Azimi also told Reuters that “foreign fighters” had taken part in the attack. The Afghan Taleban, in a statement emailed to media, claimed responsibility for the attack. Local officials in Kunar said three insurgents were killed. Sunday’s assault was the worst since last September, when the Taleban attacked a convoy of Afghan forces in relatively peaceful northern Badakhshan province, killing at least 18. The attack took place as US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan ahead a yearend deadline, shifting the bulk of the fight against Taleban and other militants to Afghans.

While Afghanistan’s police and army are seen as having made big strides in their capabilities, doubts remain about whether they can keep the Taleban at bay, especially in remote areas like Ghaziabad. It remains unclear if the United States and allied nations will keep a small force in Afghanistan after 2014 to support Afghan forces and go after al-Qaeda, due to Karzai’s refusal so far to sign a pact authorising a future troop presence. Karzai urged neighbouring Pakistan, where Afghan and US officials say Taleban and other militants are able to resupply and plot attacks, to help it fight militants. “The President once again calls on the government of Pakistan to earnestly and sincerely cooperate with a strong will with Afghanistan and to take serious and effective measures in eliminating the terrorist sanctuaries that have continued to pose a grave and serious threat to both the countries,” his office said in its statement.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced that the group’s reclusive leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan, had suspended attempts to arrange an exchange of senior Taleban locked up for years in a US prison for a US soldier in militant custody.

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