By Ahmad Khan and Hamid Shalizi
LASHKAR GAR/KABUL (Reuters) - It was meant to be another night of music and dance, a brief distraction from life in the searing heat and dust of Afghanistan's conservative rural south for a small group of boys and girls in Helmand province's Roshan Abad village.
Instead it ended in brutality that even the Taliban's austere leadership are unwilling to be linked with amid off-again, on-again peace moves and signs that grassroots insurgent fighters may not be in a mood for any compromise.
All seventeen revelers - 15 boys and two girls - were shot or beheaded by their own villagers and insurgents enraged by their "immorality".
"Inside the room there was only a smashed electric keyboard powered by a car battery, as well as a broken tabla (drum) and blood stains around the room," said district elder Juma Gul, who later visited the mud-walled compound where the slaughter unfolded.
The central Taliban leadership is trying to improve the group's image in case it wants to push forward tentative reconciliation steps and perhaps even enter mainstream politics. But some militant units are hard to control, roaming the countryside and slaughtering those deemed immoral.
In the West, the Taliban are seen as one tight movement with uniform policies. But nothing could be further from the truth in many parts of the country as NATO prepares to withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of 2014.
The warning signs of a massacre in Roshan Abad, which raises fresh questions about leaders' grip on scattered fighters, had been there for days but went unheeded, perhaps in the confidence only youths seem to have in their invulnerability.
Insurgents, who largely control the area where U.S. Marines have suffered heavy losses, had posted letters of warning - known as "night letters" because they are left under the cover of darkness - on the door of the village mosque only days before.
Gul, in a story backed by other village witnesses, said the boys and girls had met days previously at a well, where women regularly fetch water, built decades ago by U.S. aid workers to water the arid land.
But in an area known for its deep conservatism on relations between men and women, it was still unclear why the girls agreed to meet for three consecutive nights before their slaughter.
Enraged family members of the two girls were among the attackers, villager Mohammad Gul told Reuters, backed by about five Taliban members from a nearby insurgent stronghold called Baghnai.
"The boys in the house were armed and fought back, but the Taliban called in more fighters who arrived on motorbikes," said Gul, who is not related to the other villager by the same name.
It is this that perhaps explains early reports of a clash between Taliban factions.
Mohammad Gul said some of the revelers were shot in the chest, while survivors of the brief gunbattle were beheaded, including the two women, with the bodies dumped beside an irrigation canal.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf denied the group was involved in a massacre that has provoked another bout of outrage at a time when the insurgency is keen to project a more moderate face.
"The boys must have been drunk, fighting one another. We were not involved," Yousuf said on Monday.
Reclusive Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in an earlier message ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival ending Ramadan fasting this month, urged fighters to "emphatically" avoid civilian deaths as a "religious obligation to observe".
The message was in part aimed at presenting a gentler face as efforts continue to re-open peace talks which could foster a power-sharing deal, with Mullah Omar calling for an "all-Afghan" process that appeared to move away from earlier opposition to dealing with the Afghan government.
"Judging from his words, the main strategic goal seems to remain the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, maybe in a somewhat more ‘pluralistic' way," said Afghanistan Analysts Network author Thomas Ruttig in a blog this week, referring to the Taliban regime that held power until 2001.
Ruttig said two recent cases elsewhere in Afghanistan showed the Taliban were "trying to show their ‘real' position on justice and that they do care about the civilian population", by punishing rogue insurgents and criminals.
But events like the July execution of a woman in central Afghanistan accused of adultery and now the gruesome killings in Helmand threaten to undo any small advances in the face of a deeply suspicious, if not hostile, public outside the insurgents' southern and eastern stronghold.
Such incidents highlight the difficulty that Taliban leaders have in enforcing discipline across an estimated 20,000 fighters spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, through hundreds of villages separated by both mountainous geography, poor phone networks and even worse roads.
That is true also of Roshan Abad, where about 400 families live between Kajaki and Musa Qala districts in an area rarely patrolled by Afghan or foreign troops.
If the Taliban cannot enforce demands to spare the lives of civilians, then the task of enforcing any peace pact that might emerge after most Western combat troops withdraw looks even more remote.
"The Taliban are a loose movement, operating in small numbers and small groups, so it's difficult to say whether they receive or get messages from those higher-up or their Mullah Omar," said a senior Afghan intelligence official who declined to be identified.
"Even when Mullah Omar tells them or orders them not to harm civilians, local commanders prefer punishment and value their Islamic duties rather than listen to him in matters of immorality."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel)