At least 29 people were killed in a raid on an Afghan prison claimed by the Islamic State group, officials said Monday, as the country waited to see if a government ceasefire with the Taliban would rupture after its formal expiration.
Fighting finally ended at mid-afternoon at the jail in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where about 1,700 IS and Taliban inmates were being held.
IS’s news outlet Amaq said its fighters were behind the raid that had started with a suicide car bomb attack, and saw more than 1,000 inmates escape before most of them were recaptured.
The attack was the most violent incident since the Taliban and Afghan security forces held a three-day ceasefire over the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha which ended Sunday.
IS was not part of the truce which Afghan authorities hoped would pave the way for peace talks with the Taliban as early as this week.
An AFP correspondent who toured the prison after the attack ended saw bodies of some attackers and inmates lying in the prison compound.
The entrance to the jail was blown up by the initial car bomb attack.
Several cells were burnt and damaged, while some had prisoners inside.
The Nangarhar governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP that 29 people had died in the fighting.
Officials said a total of 10 attackers were also killed.
Meanwhile, the government accused the Taliban of violating the ceasefire 38 times over the three-day truce.
Interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said the insurgents had killed 20 civilians and wounded 40 by “carrying out terrorist and offensive attacks as well as using landmines”. The Taliban rejected his charges.
Under a deal signed by the Taliban and the United States in February, the “intra-Afghan” talks were supposed to start in March. Talks however were delayed amid political infighting in Kabul, and as an agreed prisoner swap dragged on.
– Prisoner release –
Both Kabul and the Taliban have signalled they could be ready to start talks after Eid, and the Afghan government on Sunday offered to extend the ceasefire.
The insurgents have not formally responded.
The biggest hurdle to talks starting is a contentious prisoner swap stipulated under the US-Taliban deal.
Under the exchange, Kabul is meant to free around 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for 1,000 Afghan security personnel held captive by the insurgents.
The National Security Council said Sunday that more than 4,900 inmates have been freed, and the Taliban last week said they had already met their side of the commitment.
Afghan authorities, however, have refused to free about 400 Taliban inmates accused of serious crimes such as murder and even attacks against foreign countries.
A gathering of Afghan elders will decide their fate on August 7 in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said.
Sediq Sediqqi said Washington had told Kabul that if it freed 4,600 Taliban prisoners the peace talks could begin.
“We don’t see any honesty and commitment from the Taliban for peace,” Sediqqi told reporters.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, eager for a diplomatic win ahead of elections, discussed the prisoner issue by videoconference Monday with Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Baradar, insurgent spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
The US State Department would not comment.
– Rumours Taliban regrouping –
The rare respite from violence over Eid gave some Afghans the opportunity to safely visit relatives after long periods apart.
“I managed to visit my village for the first time in two years,” said Khalil Ahmad from volatile Uruzgan province.
“There were many Taliban checkposts on the way, but they did not bother anyone.”
But in the northern province of Kunduz on Monday, any sense of calm felt short-lived.
One resident, Atiqullah, who only uses one name, said that rumours were circulating that the Taliban were regrouping around Kunduz city.
“Today, you see that familiar fear in people’s faces again and I am more careful not to leave home today unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he told AFP.
Sunday’s raid on the prison came a day after Afghanistan’s intelligence agency announced the killing of a top IS commander near Jalalabad.
Nangarhar province has seen deadly IS attacks, including a suiicide bomb that killed 32 mourners at a funeral in May.
The IS attacks continue despite officials claiming last year that the group had been defeated in Nangarhar.