A local government official initially said the victims were civilians at a celebration late Sunday involving music and dancing in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. The official, Neyamatullah Khan, said the Taliban killed the party-goers for flouting the extreme brand of Islam embraced by the militants.
However, provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said later that those killed were caught up in a fight between two Taliban commanders over two women, who were among the dead. Mr. Ahmadi said shooting broke out during the fight, but it was unclear whether the music and dancing triggered the violence and whether the dead were all civilians or possibly included some fighters.
All of the bodies were decapitated, but it was not clear if they had been shot first, he said.
In other violence, two American soldiers were shot and killed by one of their Afghan colleagues in the east — bringing the number of Americans killed this month by Afghan allies to 12. Afghan officials said the killings appeared to be accidental. NATO would not comment on whether the killings were intentional or accidental, but a U.S. Defense Department official said there were indications that it was an intentional killing.
The Taliban has controlled large parts of Musa Qala, a district encompassing more than 100 villages, since 2001. They enforce the same strict interpretation of Islamic law that was imposed on all of Afghanistan during Taliban rule in 1996-2001.
U.S. Marines have battled the Taliban for years in Musa Qala, but the insurgent group still wields significant power in the area as international forces across the country draw down and hand over control to Afghan forces. Helmand province, where Musa Qala is located, is one of the areas that has seen the largest reduction in U.S. troops. The U.S. started reducing forces from a peak of nearly 103,000 last year and plans to have 68,000 troops by October.
Many Afghans and international observers have expressed concerns that the Taliban will try to re-impose strict Islamic justice as international forces withdraw. Under the Taliban, all music and film was banned as un-Islamic, and women were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative as an escort.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings and said they were against Shariah law.
“The killing of innocent civilians by Taliban is an unforgivable crime,” Mr. Karzai said in a statement.
The killings contradict the Taliban leadership’s orders for their fighters to avoid killing ordinary Afghans, suggesting a breakdown in discipline and a further fracturing of the insurgency.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar urged his commanders earlier this month to “employ tactics that do not cause harm to the life and property of the common countrymen.” The insurgents’ supreme leader has issued such edicts from hiding before, perhaps trying to soften the extremist movement’s image, but the order appears to have been widely ignored.
A U.N. report last month said 1,145 civilians were killed and 1,954 others were injured in the first half of the year, 80 percent of them by militants.