ASADABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents seized a district in Afghanistan's remote northeast after a brief battle with police, provincial officials said on Tuesday, underscoring the difficulty Afghan and foreign forces face in securing the increasingly violent region.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters had captured the Waygal district center in mountainous Nuristan province in the pre-dawn hours on Tuesday, said Mohammad Zarin, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
Nimatullah Mazabyar, the head of the Nuristan provincial council, also confirmed sparsely populated Waygal was under control of insurgents.
Zarin said government forces were being prepared to launch a counter-offensive to retake the district.
Violence in Afghanistan has spiraled in the past year, with Taliban-led militants stepping up their fight against the Afghan government and its Western backers as Kabul prepares to take security responsibility gradually from foreign forces.
In a statement emailed to the media, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Islamist militants had hoisted their flag in the district center and that 12 policemen had been captured, along with arms and ammunition.
Mujahid said the success of the operation would prove wrong recent remarks by U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, that NATO-led troops had made gains against the Taliban and other insurgents.
Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province have witnessed an increasingly violent struggle as insurgents spread out of traditional Taliban strongholds in the south over the past two years.
They are close to the porous border with Pakistan, across which insurgents launch attacks from safe havens in Pakistan's largely lawless tribal areas in the northwest.
Last week, the Taliban abducted about 50 police recruits during an ambush in Kunar's Chapa Dara district. The policemen were stationed in Waygal but went through Kunar to collect their salaries.
Taliban fighters and other insurgents have seized other districts in Nuristan and Kunar in the past, only to abandon them before security reinforcements arrived.
Violence across Afghanistan last year reached its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with civilian and military casualties hitting record levels.
The violence highlights the challenges ahead as U.S. and NATO forces begin to hand over security responsibility to Afghan troops, allowing foreign troops to withdraw gradually from an increasingly unpopular war.
The process, announced last week, will begin with the handover of seven areas in July and culminate in the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by 2014.
(Reporting by Rohullah Anwari; Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Paul Tait and Sugita Katyal)