Afghan forces deployed to beat back Taliban fighters in Ghazni province, heavily populated by minority Hazaras, raising fears of sectarian violence. The escalation comes as Afghan government and Taliban meet for first direct peace talks in Moscow.
Afghan special forces were deployed on Thursday to beat back Taliban fighters in a district heavily populated by minority Hazaras, raising fears of ethnic and sectarian violence.
The flare up in fighting in Afghanistan's restive southeast comes as Russia prepares to host peace talks including Taliban and Afghan government officials on Friday.
Heavy fighting in the Jaghori district of Ghazni province has been ongoing since the Taliban launched a pre-dawn attack on two checkpoints manned by local pro-government forces on Wednesday.
"The Taliban fighters have burned civilian houses, but we don't have precise information about the number of dead and wounded," said provincial deputy police chief Ramazan Ali Mohsini.
Peace talks in Russia
Meanwhile Taliban says it will participate in the Russia peace talks.
"A high-ranking delegation of the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Taliban] will take part in the conference … It is a conference about holding comprehensive discussions on finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary and ending American occupation," the Taliban said in a statement.
"The Islamic Emirate will also give a detailed speech and clarify its views and policy about all aspects of the issue, including restoring peace and security."
Taliban denies targeting 'any specific sect'
Most Hazaras belong to the Shia branch of Islam. The Taliban, which are Sunni and largely ethnic Pashtuns, have been accused of committing human rights violations against the group during their oppressive 1996-2001 rule.
Members of Afghanistan's elite special forces flew into the Jaghori district centre and were "on their way to the frontline," President Ashraf Ghani's deputy spokesman said on Facebook.
The Taliban denied they were targeting "any specific race, ethnicity or sect," in a statement posted on their website.
Taliban gaining strength
The latest fighting comes also after a days-long battle between Taliban fighters and a Hazara militia group in the central province of Uruzgan that reportedly sent terrified families fleeing into neighbouring Ghazni province.
On Wednesday night, the Taliban also attacked an army base in the border area between the northern provinces of Takhar and Kunduz.
Twelve members of the Afghan security forces were killed and eight wounded in the raid, said Takhar provincial police chief Abdul Rasheed Bashi.
Takhar provincial health director Hafizullah Safi said 20 dead and nine wounded had been taken to hospitals.
A recent US government watchdog report said Kabul's control of Afghanistan had slipped in recent months as local forces made little or no progress against the Taliban, the country's largest insurgent group.