REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Suspected Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan have beheaded four men they apparently suspected of being spies for the government because they had a satellite phone, Afghan officials said Tuesday.
The four decapitated bodies were found in the Washir district of Helmand province. The area has no cellphone service, and local people said it was commonplace for residents to share use of a satellite phone for business dealings or medical emergencies.
The bodies were discovered on Sunday evening. It is not unusual for it to take several days for provincial authorities to learn of killings that have taken place in remote areas.
Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, denounced the beheadings, saying the men had no connection to the government. "They were just innocent civilians," he said.
The Taliban, though, denied having carried out the killings. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a spokesman, said the group no longer engaged in beheadings.
Over the last two years, the Taliban movement has carried out a concerted campaign of assassinations of tribal elders, community leaders and other prominent local figures in order to scare people away from supporting the central government. Southern Afghanistan has accounted for the majority of such killings.
In addition, the mid-level ranks of the Taliban have been devastated by targeted raids carried out by U.S. special operations forces, which have resulted in the deaths or arrests of thousands of insurgent field commanders and operatives. This has triggered violent reprisals against suspected informants.
Southern Afghanistan was the main focus of U.S.-led military efforts over the last two years. However, lately attention has been shifting to eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, which is prone to infiltration by insurgents based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Western military presence in the south is also shrinking due to a troop drawdown that began last year, American troop strength is to drop to 68,000 by the end of this year, down from a peak of more than 100,000.
-- Laura King