Seventeen beheaded in Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the Taliban today of beheading 17 villagers, including two women, in volatile Helmand province, in a gruesome attack recalling the dark days of the hardline group's rule before their 2001 overthrow.
The killings, in a district where US Marines have long battled with a resilient Taliban, could be a sign the Islamist group is reasserting itself before the planned pull-out of most Nato combat troops in 2014.
Mr Karzai ordered a full investigation into the "mass killing", which a local official said was punishment meted out to revellers attending a party with music and mixed-sex dancing.
"Such actions show that there are desperate members among the Taliban," he said in a statement.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attack, which Mr Karzai's office said took place in the province's Kajaki district.
"The victims were killed for throwing a late night dancing and music party when the Taliban attacked," Nimatullah, governor for neighbouring Musa Qala district, told Reuters.
Men and women do not usually mingle in ultra-religious Afghanistan unless they are related, and parties involving both genders are rare and kept secret.
The US embassy in Kabul, the United Nations and European Union sharply condemned the killings in statements, with the EU envoy Vygaudas Usackas calling it "barabarism".
Mr Usackas said the mass slaughter reminded him of the brazen public shooting of a young woman in Parwan province in July, which local officials also blamed on the Taliban, provoking an international outcry.
The killings, 75km north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, occurred at the beginning of a violent 24 hours for Nato and Afghan authorities in which 10 Afghan soldiers were killed in a mass insurgent attack, also in Helmand, and two US soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier.