Kunaduz, Afghanistan: An air strike in northern Afghanistan killed an al Qaeda leader who was planning suicide attacks, NATO-led forces said on Monday, underscoring the spread of the insurgency to once-peaceful areas of the country.
In another incident demonstrating the breadth of the Taliban`s reach outside traditional strongholds in the south and east, a couple were stoned to death in public in northern Kunduz over an alleged illicit love affair, government officials said.
The spread of the insurgency has come despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, backed by about 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, who have attempted to take the fight to the militants in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
While Osama bin Laden`s al Qaeda is widely believed to be funding and training the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the capture or killing of senior al Qaeda figures has been relatively uncommon in recent years.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Abu Baqir, a man they described as a Taliban sub-commander and al Qaeda group leader, was killed when an alliance aircraft fired on a truck in Kunduz province.
The strike was called in after insurgents attacked a police station, ISAF said.
"The air weapons team killed two insurgents including Baqir, who was reportedly housing four potential suicide bombers for upcoming attacks on the city of Kunduz," it said in a statement.
An ISAF spokesman said no other details, such as the man`s nationality, could be made available yet.
Pursuing al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States was the main reason behind the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban later that year.
In October 2009, White House national security adviser James Jones estimated there were fewer than 100 al Qaeda militants still operating in Afghanistan. He said the question of Afghanistan once again becoming a haven for al Qaeda was "hypothetical."
Once relatively peaceful, Kunduz has been drawn slowly into the insurgency in recent months.
The fragile grip of NATO-led forces there was shown last September, when a U.S. air strike called in by German troops killed scores of people, at least 30 of them civilians. The incident led to the resignation of the German defense minister.
Mohammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz, said on Monday the Taliban had a day earlier publicly stoned to death a couple for adultery.
If confirmed, the executions would be the first of their kind by the Taliban in the area and follow a call last week by Afghan clerics for a return to sharia and capital punishments carried out under the Islamic law.
"The two were stoned to death in a bazaar of Dasht-e Archi district on the accusation of committing the act of adultery," Omar said.
The Taliban arrested the two, who were each engaged to be married to other people, at the request of their families after they tried to elope, said district police chief Hameed Agha.
Such punishments were commonplace under the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 but they have distanced themselves from the Kunduz executions, and the public flogging and execution of a woman in northwestern Badghis last week.