By Aimal Yaqubi
KABUL (Reuters) - Dozens of Taliban fighters were stranded on a river island on the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan on Saturday after fleeing army troops led by the Afghan vice president, the government said, though the Taliban denied they were stuck.
Taliban fighters fled on Thursday to the banks of the Amu River, one of the longest in Central Asia, deserting motorbikes and using fishing boats to reach the island, said Sultan Faizy, spokesman for Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
"They have no choice but to surrender or starve," he said, adding that Afghan troops had not advanced so as not to enter Turkmenistan.
A Taliban spokesman denied its fighters were marooned, saying they were basing themselves on the Afghan side of the island to stage their fight against government forces.
Afghanistan's vice president has been leading about 2,000 Afghan troops in the northern province of Jawzjan against the insurgents making a broad push across the north of the country.
The clashes come just weeks after the Taliban briefly took control of provincial capital of Kunduz province in the movement's biggest victory in the 14-year war.
Afghan forces had cleared most of Khamab district on Thursday, which had fallen under Taliban control for nearly three weeks, seizing militants' heavy arms and vehicles and forcing the fighters to retreat to the island, Faizy said.
The Jawzjan operation is part of the expanding fight by Afghan troops against the Taliban, which has launched sustained attacks on district and provincial centers since the withdrawal of most foreign troops at the end of last year.
The geographic spread of the insurgency's attacks has strained the limited resources of Afghan forces during a long year of fighting that is expected to last through the winter.
Many districts across the country are now fully or partially under Taliban control in the fluid power struggle between the militants and government forces that can change daily.
In the northern province of Faryab, next door to Jawzjan, the bodies of 13 police, including the district's police chief, were recovered by security forces on Friday in Ghormach district, which fell to Taliban forces last week, said Faryab's security chief Col. Baryalai Basharyar Parwani.
It was not the only attack on government officials during the week. On Thursday, Mohammad Daud Gulistani, the head of Jaghatu district in the embattled central province of Ghazni, was ambushed by armed gunmen and killed, according to the province's deputy governor. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Helen Popper)