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Afghanistan war rekindles, claiming lives and sending civilians fleeing as Taliban battles Panjshir valley resistance

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Afghanistan's Taliban, which spent 20 years fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul as an insurgency, is now battling to defend its increasingly draconian rule from resistance forces bent on reclaiming the country from the Islamic hardliners. This latest phase of conflict, focused in the Panjshir and Andarab valleys north of Kabul, has taken a significant toll already on both sides — and on Afghan civilians.

Earlier this month the National Resistance Forces of Afghanistan (NRF) announced a new military operation against Taliban forces aimed at "liberating" the Panjshir and Andarab valleys.

The NRF is an alliance of anti-Taliban forces made up largely of former members of the country's military and police, many of them trained by U.S. forces during the two-decade war. Formed after Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, the NRF is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the iconic 1990s anti-Taliban militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

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The elder Massoud was killed by al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan just before the group carried out its September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.

The NRF, along with several smaller resistance groups, has vowed to "free Afghanistan" from the Taliban's rule.

The Taliban quickly sent forces up to Panjshir to counter the NRF offensive, and the group's leaders claim they captured dozens of NRF fighters before declaring the situation in the region "normal and peaceful" again on Monday.

But both sides claimed battlefield victories, with NRF spokesman Sibghatullah Ahmadi saying on Twitter late last week that at least 18 Taliban fighters were killed in two attacks in Panjshir province alone. He confirmed that the NRF had also sustained casualties.

The NRF's commander in Panjshir, Khalid Amiry, said Monday in a tweet that his troops had killed and wounded at least 200 Taliban militants in the recent clashes. 

"When they lost the fight against the resistance forces, in retaliation they commit war crimes and crimes against humanity," said Amiry, adding a call for an "impartial investigation" by global organizations into the Taliban's actions in the region.

The Taliban would not confirm or deny causalities among its forces, but Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for group's central government in Kabul, tweeted a video (below) showing a group of unarmed men sitting in front of armed Taliban fighters. Mujahid claimed "a large number of insurgents in Dara district of Panjshir province surrendered their weapons and joined the forces of Islamic Emirate."

NRF officials claimed the Taliban had actually rounded-up ordinary civilians in Panjshir to stage the video. 

CBS News could not independently verify the videos presented by the Taliban regime, or others that appear to show atrocities by its fighters.

Videos shared on social media, including some posted by Taliban militants, have shown other purported surrenders, along with people being beaten and killed in Panjshir and Andarab. In one graphic video, a Taliban fighter can be heard saying, "these are dirty Panjshirs," as he walks over and spits on dead bodies.

European Union Ambassador to Afghanistan Andreas Von Brandt said in a tweet that he was "concerned by the reports of killings of civilians and mistreatment in Panjshir" and he called for "an overdue inclusive solution in governing Afghanistan."

"Many extremely worrying videos, audios, and reports of violations from northern provinces of #panjshir #Takhar #Baghlan. Further verification is needed," said Richard Bennett, the United Nations special rapporteur on Afghanistan, adding that he was watching the situation "closely."

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Jamil, a resident and shopkeeper in Panjshir province, told CBS News in a phone interview late last week that more Taliban fighters were still arriving daily. He said residents would sometimes see visibly angry Taliban members taking away their dead comrades.

"We don't want to face them when they're angry," he said.

Despite a Taliban commander in the region's claim on Monday that the fighting had stopped and the situation was "normal," other residents told French news agency AFP that dozens of civilians had already fled Panjshir, afraid of getting caught up in the violence.

"We could only pick up one or two items of clothing," Lutfullah Bari told AFP, saying he'd fled with dozens of other residents and was now taking shelter with relatives in the Kabul area.

Aimal Rahimi, another civilian from Panjshir, told AFP that people were "afraid and escaping to save their lives."

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