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Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry says more than 30 Taliban militants have been killed in air strikes in the country’s north, although provincial officials said civilians were also among the dead.

The ministry said two air strikes targeted a Taliban base in the Khan Abad district of the northern province of Kunduz, a stronghold of the militants, on September 19.

Provincial officials said at least 12 civilians were killed and more than 10 wounded in the air strikes.

The deadly strikes came as Afghan and Taliban representatives hold peace talks in the Gulf state of Qatar.

"The first strike hit the Taliban base, but the second one caused civilian casualties as they had gathered at the bombed site," said Fatima Aziz, a member of parliament who represents Kunduz.

The ministry did not confirm any civilian deaths but said an investigation was under way.

In a statement, the Taliban denied its fighters were hit and said 23 civilians had been killed.

The air strikes came after overnight clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban militants in Khan Abad district.

Esmatullah Moradi, the spokesman for the governor of Kunduz, said three Afghan soldiers were killed in the clashes.

Kunduz city, the provincial capital, briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015 and has come under attack several times since then.

While the government controls the city, many rural areas of Kunduz Province are controlled or contested by the Taliban.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan, despite the start of the talks on September 12 that are aimed at reaching a political settlement to end the nearly 19-year-old war.

Roland Kobia, the European Union’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said on September 18 that UN figures show violence in Afghanistan in the last five weeks has been the highest in the last five years.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Jailed Iranian human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh has been hospitalized with heart problems, her husband, Reza Khandan, said.

Sotoudeh has been on a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison since August 11 to protest the risks that political prisoners in Iran face amid the coronavirus pandemic

Sotoudeh was suffering from “heart problems, shortness of breath, very low blood pressure, and severe general weakness,” Khandan wrote on Twitter on September 19.

Khandan said she was transferred to a coronary-care unit due to her “serious condition.”

Sotoudeh has said she will refuse to eat in order to secure the release of political prisoners who have not been included in the temporary prison leaves granted to tens of thousands of detainees to prevent the spread of the virus in the country’s overcrowded prisons, according to Iranian authorities.

The pandemic has killed more than 24,000 Iranians and infected over 400,000, according to official figures. Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.

PEN America, an open expression advocacy group, called for the immediate release of Sotoudeh and other political prisoners “whose health is at risk due to the spread of COVID-19 inside Iran’s jails.”

“Nasrin’s condition is critical and her life hangs in the balance, but her spirit remains unbroken and her calls for justice are reverberating around the world,” Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs, said in a statement on September 18.

“We call on President [Hassan] Rohani to free Nasrin from Evin prison and reunite her with her family, as well as release other unjustly incarcerated political prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Sotoudeh, co-winner of the European Parliament's 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, has been surviving on water, tea, sugar, and salt, amid concerns over her health, her husband has said.

Sotoudeh was arrested at her home in Tehran in June 2018.

She was sentenced to a total of 38 1/2 years in prison and 148 lashes over her defense of political prisoners, including women protesting the compulsory hijab law.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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