Taliban fighters kill 18 Afghan soldiers, beheading eight

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Map showing Badakhshan

At least 18 Afghan soldiers have been killed - eight of them beheaded - by Taliban fighters in a major attack in north-east Afghanistan, officials say.

About 12 soldiers are missing after Friday's attack in Badakhshan province, a provincial spokesman told AFP.

Government checkpoints were also briefly seized during the attack.

Taliban insurgents have stepped up attacks on government and foreign targets since the US slowed down the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Government forces managed to regain control of the Jurm district, in Badakhshan province, but not before calling for assistance from Kabul, Reuters reports.

The defence ministry said the attack left a total of 33 Afghan soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

The Afghan Taliban has said it was behind the attack.

Spokesman Naweed Frotan told AFP that 200 fighters stormed an army outpost in Jurm before killing the soldiers.

"Our rescue operations are continuing to track down and bring back the security forces who went missing in the assault," he said.

The Taliban, which governed the country until 2001 when it was ousted in a US-led invasion, wants to restore strict Islamic rule.

Taliban attacks have escalated since March, when Washington backpedalled on plans to cut down the US force in Afghanistan this year by nearly half.

Fighting in Afghanistan tends to intensify at this time of year, when the snow that make mountainous areas impassable melts.