By Sharafuddin Sharafyar
HERAT (Reuters) - An Afghan police commander and 12 junior officers have defected to the Taliban after poisoning seven comrades, government officials in the western province of Farah said on Tuesday.
The commander, named only as Mirwais, was in charge of a checkpoint in the Bala Boluk district when he and his unit defected to the Taliban and handed over their equipment and weapons, including military vehicles.
"He was a police commander for a checkpoint in Shewan village. He joined the Taliban with a Humvee, a Ranger (SUV), radios and 20 guns," said Abdul Rahman Zwandai, a spokesman for the Farah governor.
The seven police were poisoned because they refused to join the rebellion, he said. All were taken to the Farah hospital and an investigation would be launched.
Farah, bordering Iran, is one of western Afghanistan's most insecure provinces, although the west is relatively secure compared to insurgent strongholds in the east and south.
The defection was the first time that police had joined the Taliban and taken so much equipment with them, Zwandai said, and will worry Western backers looking to hand security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
But national intelligence officials denied reports in some Afghan media that two members of the country's High Peace Council, which leads government efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, had also defected to the insurgency.
"I'm not sure anyone from the HPC would have joined the Taliban," said National Directorate of Security deputy spokesman Shafiqullah Tahiri.
Mohammad Hashim Grani, who heads the Peace Council in southeast Zabul province, said earlier this week that HPC members Mawlavi Mohammad Aziz and Mawlavi Mohammad Zeba were still backing the government, despite going missing amid Taliban claims they had defected.
"They are in villages to infiltrate the Taliban and meet more and more people," Grani said. "Very soon they will turn back."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani premier Raja Pervez Ashraf said this week during talks in Kabul that Peace Council head Salahuddin Rabbani would soon travel to Pakistan for talks on the stalled Afghan peace process.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul Writing by Rob Taylor Editing by Nick Macfie)