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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Taliban militants stopped a bus traveling on Afghanistan's main highway through a wild and dangerous part of the country's south, captured some 50 people on board and slaughtered around 30 of them, officials said Sunday.
A Taliban spokesman said the militia's fighters carried out the attack but that the insurgents killed 27 Afghan army soldiers riding on the bus.
Militants stopped one bus in a two-bus convoy in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province - a Taliban-controlled area about 40 miles west of Kandahar city, said Matiullah Khan, the provincial police chief. Around 50 people were taken hostage, though several were freed, he said.
Officials offered varying death tolls from the attack, which occurred in an area of Afghanistan that government forces cannot safely travel to without heavy military protection. That may explain why news of the Thursday hijacking did not emerge until Sunday.
The Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, said 31 people were killed. Six of the dead were beheaded in a separate area of Maiwand from where the other 25 bodies were found, he said.
Khan offered a higher toll, saying around 40 civilians were killed. He said his information came from "local sources."
It was not possible to reconcile the differing figures. The spokesman for Kandahar's provincial governor said officials would hold a news conference later Sunday.
Azimi dismissed the Taliban claim that 27 soldiers had been killed. "Our soldiers travel by military convoy, not in civilian buses. And we have military air transportation," Azimi said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said militants looked at the documents of those traveling on the bus, released all the civilians and killed 27 soldiers. Taliban spokespersons often exaggerate their claims but occasionally their information matches up with the government version of events.
Khan said two buses had been traveling together and that the militants tried to stop the first one but failed. He said the insurgents fired at the first bus and killed one child on board.
Taliban attacks have become increasingly lethal this year as the militia has gained power and surged throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan. Violence in Afghanistan this year has killed more than 5,100 people - mostly militants - according to an Associated Press count of figures from Afghan and Western officials.
Associated Press reporter Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.
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