KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban beheaded 12 Afghan civilians, mostly family members of local policemen, in an assault that was part of a week-long offensive that has so far killed 60 people and wounded scores in a remote province in eastern Afghanistan, officials said Friday.
However, a Taliban spokesman in Ghazni province denied the reports of beheadings and civilian slayings, insisting the insurgents were only fighting Afghan forces there.
The violence comes amid the annual Taliban offensive, which this year will be an important gauge of how well Afghan government forces are able to face insurgent attacks ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops at the end of the year.
According to the Ghazni provincial deputy police chief, Asadullah Ensafi, the Taliban on Thursday night captured and beheaded 12 civilians and torched some 60 homes in an attack in the province's district of Arjistan.
Details were sketchy because of the remoteness of the rugged mountainous area, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of the capital, Kabul, but Afghan officials said that women and children were believed to be among the casualties. There are no NATO troops stationed in the district.
Beheadings are rare in Afghanistan, though they occasionally take place as part of the Taliban campaign to intimidate and exact revenge on the families of Afghan troops and security forces.
"We don't have the time for this (beheadings) while we are fighting," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf told The Associated Press over the phone. "These reports are baseless and a lie."
The offensive in Ghazni comes as Afghanistan readies to inaugurate the country's new president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who officially takes over from Hamid Karzai on Monday.
Over the past week, the Taliban have been attacking several villages in Ghazni's Arjistan district, Ensafi said, and battles in the area were still raging Friday, he said.
On Friday morning, the Taliban detonated a car bomb in front of an encampment where some 40 Afghan policemen were based in Arjistan, killing at least 8 policemen, said the province's deputy governor, Mohammad Ali Ahmadi.
Ensafi said it was not immediately possible to reach the area to determine the exact number of casualties because the insurgents had mined the roads.
Ahmadi, who also confirmed the beheadings, said that attack and the car bomb brought the overall death toll in the Taliban offensive in Ghazni to 60. The victims included both civilians and policemen, he said.
Ahmadi said Afghan commandos have been airlifted from Kabul to the area to battle the Taliban and prevent the district from falling to the insurgents.
In Kabul, Ghazni lawmaker Nafisa Azimi said the situation in the province remains very dangerous, adding that the Taliban have taken scores of civilians from Arjistan hostage.
Yousaf, the Taliban spokesman, claimed the insurgents were in full control of Arjistan and that the government was trying to "save face" over its losses by accusing the Taliban with "false reports" of beheadings and civilian deaths.
Fighting between insurgents and Afghan forces was also underway Friday in Gizab district in the southern province of Uruzgan, said Abdullah Khan, the district governor. He said the Taliban were now in control of almost 80 percent of that district and were trying to capture the governor's office there.
"I alerted superiors in Kabul but we have gotten no response so far," Khan said. "If we don't get reinforcements soon, we might lose the district."
He said the situation in Sangin district in neighboring Helmand province was similar and that the Taliban there had also captured most of the district.
There was no immediate comment on the fighting from the central government in Kabul.
Each spring and summer bring an escalation in fighting in Afghanistan with the end of snowy winter weather, which hampers movement. The melting of the snows also opens up mountain passes, allowing militant forces to move in from neighboring Pakistan.
The country's new president, Ghani Ahmadzai, is expected to sign a security agreement — perhaps as early as next week — that allows some 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after all combat troops are withdrawn by the end of the year.
A protracted dispute over the results of a June presidential runoff with allegations of widespread fraud had delayed the signing of the deal.
But on Sunday, Ghani Ahmadzai and his rival for the post, Abdullah Abdullah, signed a power-sharing deal after Afghanistan's election commission named Ghani Ahmadzai the winner of the election and noted that Abdullah would fill the newly created position of chief executive, a post akin to prime minister.
Khan reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan.