KABUL, Afghanistan – Police and villagers hunted on Friday for 13 mine-clearing workers kidnapped in a restive part of Afghanistan less than a week after Taliban militants vowed to step up an abduction campaign. The de-miners, all Afghans working for a U.N.-funded land mine-clearance agency, were kidnapped Thursday in eastern Paktia province on the border with Pakistan, said provincial deputy police chief Ghulam Dastager.
“We have nothing to do with politicians, the people of the area asked us to come,” said Kefayatullah Eblagh, the head of Afghan Technical Consultants, the de-mining agency.
In the past, Taliban insurgents have abducted de-miners and occasionally killed them, but Dastager said it was too early to speculate on the identity or motives of the kidnappers, noting criminal gangs also frequently take hostages for ransom.
The Taliban recently released 19 South Koreans held for almost six weeks after an unprecedented deal with the Seoul government, and vowed to carry out more abductions of locals and foreigners.
Dastager and Eblagh said police and villagers were hunting for the crew, who were traveling in two vehicles.
Insurgent violence is running at its highest level in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, exposing the weaknesses of the central government and straining the multinational forces supporting it.
Two NATO soldiers were killed in two separate bomb blasts Thursday in southern Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. It gave no more details.
On Friday, several suspected insurgents were killed in restive Kandahar province, bringing to more than 235 the number of Taliban killed in daily fighting in the region since Aug. 27, the U.S. military said in a statement.
“The extremist Taliban are inexplicably attacking Afghan National Security Forces during this operation in spite of the large losses they are incurring,” said Maj. Chris Belcher, a military spokesman.
Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available for comment and it was not possible to independently confirm the death toll.
The Taliban have acknowledged some losses, but say many of the dead were civilians â€” a charge denied by the coalition.
The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001, imposing an extreme version of Islam and providing refuge for al-Qaida leaders and thousands of other Muslim militants from around the world.
They were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but are now leading an increasingly bloody campaign against the country’s Western-backed government.
More than 4,400 people â€” most of them militants â€” have been killed so far this year in Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press count.