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Bomb Kills 20 In Afghanistan, As Army Frees Dozens Of Prisoners

Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor
Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor

A suicide bomber has killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan, including a Taliban commander, an Afghan official says.

Abdul Qauom Baqizoi, provincial chief police of the northern Sar-e Pul Province, said the attack took place as village elders met with Taliban officials in the area. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Baqizoi said the Islamic State (IS) group was behind it.

Taliban and IS have been waging bitter battles in recent days in northern Afghanistan. As many as 100 militants from both sides have been killed in recent battles, Baqizoi said.

Provincial council chief Mohammad Noor Rahman said the explosion occurred in a mosque as a funeral was taking place.

The area is remote and it was impossible to reconcile the differing accounts.

Meanwhile, Afghan official said dozens of people, including security personnel and civilians, had been freed from a Taliban prison in southern Helmand Province.

The exact number of those released was not immediately clear. Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said on July 17 that 54 people were freed after a special-forces commando unit raided the prison late on July 16 in Musa Qala district.

Zwak said there were 32 civilians, 16 police, four soldiers, and two military doctors who had been locked up by the insurgents.

He said security forces were still securing the area.

The Taliban did not immediately comment on the raid, but the insurgents are in control of the majority of the districts in Helmand, where they have increased their attacks against provincial officials and security forces.

Afghan special forces spokesman Jawid Saleem said 45 people were released, including 15 police officers and four members of the Afghan National Army, two doctors, and a group of local residents.

Helmand is one of the most embattled provinces in southern Afghanistan. More than 80 percent of its territory is controlled by the Taliban.

Separately, at least nine Afghan National Army soldiers were killed on July 16 after Taliban militants attacked their checkpoints in northern Kunduz Province, officials said.

Dozens more were injured in the attacks on at least two checkpoints in the province's Imam Saheb district, according to provincial-council member Mohammad Yousif Ayoubi.

Also on July 16, local officials in the southern Kandahar Province said at least 25 Taliban fighters were killed during a clash with security forces in the region overnight.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official, that Washington is open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war.

The move, if confirmed, would mark a tactical shift by the Trump administration, which has previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involve the Afghan government.

With reporting by AP and dpa

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