Taliban fighters have stormed several security posts providing protection to Afghanistan's historic minaret of Jam, cutting access to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and killing 18 members of security forces, officials said on Wednesday.
The attack comes less than a week after the revered 12th-century minaret, located in a remote part of the western province of Ghor, was threatened by surging floodwaters.
"The Taliban have captured some checkpoints around the minaret. We had to retreat because more fighting would cause damage to the minaret," Sayed Zia Hussaini, the deputy police chief of Ghor, told AFP news agency.
Abdul Hai Khatebi, the provincial governor spokesman, said 15 pro-government militias and three policemen had been killed in the attacks, which started on Monday.
"The Taliban have shut off telecommunication towers and have cut any access to the area," Fakhruddin Ariapur, the Ghor province director of information and culture, told AFP.
"The cleaning-up work [from the flood] has stopped and we don't know what is happening there."
Saving the minaret
Dramatic video footage from late last week showed brown torrents crashing up against the base of the brick minaret, which was built in about 1190.
On Monday, the government said it had hired about 300 local workers to channel floodwaters away from the tower. The work appeared to have saved the minaret from imminent danger.
Located in an area largely under Taliban control, the Jam minaret is the world's second tallest made of bricks, reaching a height of 65 metres.
It is situated on the frontier of Ghor and Herat provinces, at the heart of the former Ghorid empire, which dominated Afghanistan and parts of India in the 12th-13th centuries.
Delegates meet in Moscow
The attack comes a day after a Taliban delegation met a group of senior Afghan politicians in Moscow.
The delegation, led by chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund, met politicians, including senior regional leaders and candidates challenging President Ashraf Ghani in this year's presidential election.
"The Islamic Emirate wants peace but the first step is to remove obstacles to peace and end the occupation of Afghanistan," Baradar said, appearing openly on TV in what appeared to be a calculated move to establish his legitimacy as one of the main public faces of the Taliban.
The Taliban, ousted by US-backed forces weeks after September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate.
Mohammad Karim Khalili, head of the High Peace Council, the main body charged with pursuing peace efforts, said dozens of people were being killed in fighting every day and it was time for a "dignified and just mechanism" to end the bloodshed.
Taliban officials have been talking to US diplomats for months about the terms of a withdrawal of more than 23,000 US and NATO coalition troops from Afghanistan and have reached a draft agreement on some issues but no new date for the next round of talks has been set and many obstacles remain.
Chief among these is the Taliban refusal to deal directly with President Ashraf Ghani's Western-backed government in Kabul, which they dismiss as a "puppet" regime.
Atta Mohammad Noor, the former governor of the northern province of Balkh and a leader of the mainly ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami party, said it was in the interests of all sides to establish a good understanding.
"We want to have good relations with the Taliban and we expect peace from them," he said.