KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The Taliban beheaded seventeen party-goers, including two women dancers, in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province as punishment, recalling the darkest days of rule by the ultra-conservative Islamist insurgents before their ouster in 2001.

The bodies were found on Monday in a house near the Musa Qala district where a party was held on Sunday night with music and mixed-sex dancing, said district governor Nimatullah. Men and women do not usually mingle in Afghanistan unless they are related, and parties involving both genders are rare and kept secret.

The killings, about 75 km (46 miles) north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, came at the beginning of a violent 24 hours for NATO and Afghan authorities in which 10 Afghan soldiers were killed in a mass insurgent attack, also in Helmand, while two US soldiers were slain by a rogue Afghan soldier.

"The victims threw a late-night dance and music party when the Taliban attacked" on Sunday night, Nimatullah, who only has one name, told Reuters.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility.

During their five-year reign, which was toppled by US-backed Afghan forces, sparking the present NATO-led war, the Taliban banned women from voting, most work and leaving their homes unaccompanied by their husband or a male relative.

Though those rights have been painstakingly regained, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places on Earth to be a woman.

Some democratic freedoms have also been wound back in what rights groups fear is an effort to reach a political reconciliation and possible power-sharing with the Taliban.

The Taliban gunmen stormed a lakeside hotel near Kabul in June demanding to know where the "prostitutes and pimps" were, witnesses said. Twenty people were killed.

The Taliban said they launched the attack on Qarga Lake because the hotel was used for "wild parties".

Helmand governor spokesman Daud Ahmadi said a team had been sent to the site of beheadings to investigate.

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