KABUL/MUMBAI, May 1 (Reuters) - The Taliban have mounted more than 4,500 attacks in Afghanistan, marking a sharp escalation in violence, in the 45 days since signing a deal with the United States that paves the way for a U.S. troop drawdown, according to data seen by Reuters.
Two sets of data, one from a Western military source and one from an independent body, both show attacks up by more than 70 percent between March 1 and April 15 compared to the same period a year ago.
Separately, Afghan government data indicates that more than 900 Afghan local and national forces were killed during that same period, up from about 520 in the same period a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Taliban casualties fell to 610 in the period, down from roughly 1,660 a year ago, as U.S. and Afghan forces have reduced the number of offensive attacks and air strikes following the U.S.-Taliban accord.
Senior western, Afghan and independent officials tracking the ground situation in the war-damaged nation say that the increase in attacks displays the insurgent group’s wilful disregard for a reduction in violence pledge that was part of the accord signed in late February.
The violence has coincided with the rapid spread of the coronavirus infection.
The four provinces that have reported the highest number of cases of the infection have also been the ones hit by the most by Taliban violence in recent weeks, according to the two data sets and at least three senior Afghan and western officials.
As of May 1, Afghanistan has reported over 2,335 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths, but international observers believe numbers could be much higher, give the lack of testing.
“Taliban fighters are not hitting large government centres or cities, they are focusing on villages in Herat, Kabul, Kandahar and Balkh provinces that have reported the highest number of coronavirus cases,” said a senior Western security official on condition of anonymity.
Two Taliban spokesman said the group was not responsible for a majority of the attacks in recent weeks, and accused the United States of jeopardising the peace agreement by supporting Afghan security forces and not releasing all the 5,000 Taliban prisoners it was required to free under the accord.
According to the Taliban, the group’s attacks between the start of March and April 15 fell 54.7% compared to a year ago to 537.
The hardline Islamist group said their attacks were not “as intense” compared to the previous year and Afghan security forces members killed fell 54.2% to 935 while the number wounded fell 55.9% to 742.
Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, said army troops were in an “active defence mode” and were using the air force to stop Taliban’s territorial expansion. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Euan Rocha, William Maclean)