Afghan Forces Locked in Deadly Battle to Free Hostages

 / Updated 

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan soldiers were locked in a deadly battle to free dozens of hostages being held in the restive south of the country, officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

"The operation has been going for the past 20 hours involving the Afghan army, Afghan police and special forces," Zabul provincial police chief Gen Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewanai said. "Heavy casualties have been inflicted on the militants."The official said he did not want to provide more details because the operation was ongoing.

An army commander involved in the operation in Zabul said that more than 50 militants — many of them foreign — had been killed.

"They include Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks," said the commander who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity. "We do not have the exact numbers and identities of those killed, but most of them are foreigners. One Afghan commando has been seriously injured so far and we are closing on their main compound."

The ministry of interior in Kabul declined to comment, saying the operation was ongoing and releasing information could jeopardize it.

NBC News could not independently confirm the details of the battle, and there was no word on the fate of the hostages, who were kidnapped on February 24 as they traveled on two buses from Kabul. Most if not all of those being held are Hazaras, an ethnic minority that was harshly persecuted by the Taliban during the 1990s, according to government and bus company officials.

IN-DEPTH

— Fazul Rahim and F. Brinley Bruton

Reuters contributed to this report.

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