The Taliban gained control of several villages in northeastern Afghanistan on Monday after two days of gunbattles with another Islamist group that ended when nearly 70 of the rival militants retreated and surrendered to government forces nearby, officials said.

The fierce fighting, which left at least 50 dead from both sides, was a turf war between the Taliban and insurgent allies Hezb—e—Islami - loyal to regional warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - that also might have been triggered by Hekmatyar’s apparent willingness to join the government—led peace process, officials said.

One of the Hezb—e—Islami militants who defected said on Monday that the fighters in the area are now willing to join the government and fight the Taliban in the north-eastern province of Baghlan where the battles ended on Sunday.

“If the government protects us and supports us, we will finish the Taliban in Baghlan,” said Noorullaq, one of 11 Hezb—e—Islami commanders who turned their weapons over to the government. He spoke at a news conference on Monday in the provincial capital of Pul—e—Khumri.

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has little control in the area of Baghlan where the fighting broke out. Afghan police amassed on the edge of the battle zone, set up mobile hospitals and were offering medical care to any fighters willing to defect.

Noorullaq, who uses only one name, said another large group of his comrades was on its way to join the government in addition to the 70 who had already defected. The previous day, dozens of Hezb—e—Islami fighters stood in line to hand over their AK—47s and rocket—propelled grenades to government officials.

The fighting ended with the Taliban seizing several villages previously controlled by Hekmatyar’s men, said Kaman, the Afghan National Police commander for Baghlan.

“The Taliban cleaned the area of Hezb—e—Islami,” said Kaman, who also uses just one name.

Abdul Wakil Esas, who commands an Afghan National Army unit in neighbouring Kunduz province, said 15 civilians were killed and wounded in the weekend fighting about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Pul—e—Khumri.

The Taliban fighters moved into Baghlan from neighboring Kunduz province to expand their territory and possibly as part of a dispute over how to handle peace overtures from Karzai’s government, said Baghlan Gov. Mohammad Akbar Barakzai.

“The Hezb—e—Islami said, `It’s our territory, and our forces have controlled it for the past several years,’ and the Taliban said, `It’s our territory,”’ Barakzai said. “Another reason is that a couple weeks ago, the government had a meeting with the elders to tell them to lay down their weapons on the ground and join with the peace process.”

Hekmatyar’s son reportedly represented the militia at a three-day meeting last month in Maldives to discuss possible peace process with government negotiators, Maldives government spokesman Mohamed Zuhair, said at the time.

The Taliban’s decision to flex its muscle in the north also could be its way of trying to show that it remains a potent force in the nation. Earlier this month, the Taliban were routed from the southern town of Marjah during a three-week offensive by thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops in Helmand province.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived in Afghanistan early Monday, said the Marjah offensive -the first major test of a new U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency strategy - is encouraging, but stopped short of saying it suggests that the war is at a turning point.

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