An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a Taliban commander, while in southern Helmand province a government commando unit freed 54 people from a Taliban jail, according to officials.

The stepped up activity in Afghanistan comes as Washington considers a Taliban demand for direct talks in hopes of jump-starting a negotiated end to what is now the longest military engagement by U.S. forces.

A Taliban official in the Gulf State of Qatar where the Islamic insurgency maintains an unofficial office told The Associated Press they wanted direct talks. He added that the Taliban was ready to put troop withdrawal as well as any outstanding concerns the U.S. might have on the table, but so far no official request to open negotiations has come from Washington. Speaking on the condition he not be identified, he said de-listing Taliban leaders from the U.S and UN watch lists and recognising their office in Doha, the Qatar capital, would aid progress in talks should they begin.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan’s Sar-i-Pul province, Abdul Qayuom Baqizoi, provincial police chief, said Tuesday’s attack by IS took place as village elders met with Taliban officials.

He said 15 of the 20 killed were local elders and five were Taliban, including a Taliban commander.

The Taliban and the IS have been waging bitter battles in recent days in northern Afghanistan.

As many as 100 insurgents from both the groups have perished in recent battles, said Mr. Baqizoi.

Provincial council chief Mohammed Noor Rahman, however, 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.

Taliban jail raided

Elsewhere, in southern Helmand’s Musa Qala district late on Monday , a commando unit stormed into a jail that Taliban insurgents had been operating.

There they found 32 civilians, 16 police, four soldiers and two military doctors, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial Governor.

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.

The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with the U.S. Trump administration officials said Monday for the first time that the U.S. would be open to holding direct talks with the Taliban.

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