Taliban force overwhelms Afghan police in battle

About 300 Taliban fighters overran the tiny capital of a remote mountainous district in north-east Afghanistan yesterday, forcing police to retreat from their small outpost in the area, an official said.

The takeover was another indication of the deteriorating security situation in the north and east of the country, and a sign that the Taliban are preparing for a spring offensive against Afghan security troops and coalition forces.

In separate incidents, Nato announced that two of its members had been killed in insurgent attacks in eastern Afghanistan. Their deaths brought the number of coalition troops killed this month to 29, and the number killed this year to 96.

Shamsul Rahman, the Nuristan provincial police chief, said the insurgents took control of the main village in rugged Waygal district during a pre-dawn raid. He added that police decided to retreat and said they suffered no casualties. By taking the capital of Waygal, the insurgents essentially took control of the small district.

"We were in a narrow place and we had no way to fight because we were restricted in our movements," Mr Rahman said. "We had no casualties and it was a good decision to leave to prevent casualties. There were not enough heavy weapons with the police."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the district was captured along with 12 police officers and their weapons. He said the Taliban met little resistance and the rest of the police retreated in the direction of Nuristan's capital, Parun. Mr Rahman, however, denied that any of his men had been captured. Nato said it had no forces in the district and would not comment on the incident.

The region has seen an escalation in violence over the past few months. In neighbouring Kunar province, the Governor, Sayed Fazeullah Wahidi, said elders in the Chapa Dara district had managed to negotiate the release of 19 police officers out of 40 abducted by the Taliban on Sunday. Police had originally reported that 50 were taken.

"We are trying to release the other 21 but they were taken to different places," Mr Wahidi said. "Those released are in good health and we are trying hard to get the others released."

The Taliban and other insurgent groups control large parts of Nuristan, Kunar and other northeastern provinces near the Pakistani border. Insurgents retain safe havens in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions and cross the border into Afghanistan to attack Nato troops.

Much of Afghanistan remains insecure, and security forces have little freedom of movement. On Sunday, a team of suicide bombers shot their way into a road construction company compound in Paktika province, killing 23 people.