The Taliban have so far not commented on the incident in Aliabad district in the volatile province of Kunduz, where the insurgents briefly overran the provincial capital in a stunning military victory last year.
Up to 200 passengers were travelling in four buses towards Kabul on Tuesday morning when they were stopped by the Taliban gunmen, with some killed on the side of the road at point-blank range, officials said.
“The Taliban shot dead 16 passengers and they are still holding more than 30 others,” said Sayed Mahmood Danish, spokesman for the governor of Kunduz.
Police commander Shir Aziz Kamawal gave a death toll of 17. The identities of the passengers have not been confirmed.
“They (Taliban) have released some passengers but are holding many others. None of the passengers were wearing military uniform but some may have been former police,” he said.
Residents of insurgency-prone Aliabad told AFP the Taliban were holding an informal court in a local mosque, scrutinising the ID documents of the passengers and interrogating them for any government links.
Highways around Afghanistan passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taliban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers.
Civilians are increasingly caught in the crosshairs of Afghanistan’s worsening conflict as the Taliban step up their annual spring offensive, launched in April against the Western-backed Kabul government.
Tuesday’s incident comes a day after the Taliban overran multiple police checkpoints in Helmand, the first major assault in the opium-rich southern province since the leadership transition.
The Taliban last Wednesday announced Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader, elevating a low-profile religious figure in a swift power transition after officially confirming the death of Mullah Mansour in a US drone strike.
The drone attack, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistani soil, sent shockwaves through the insurgent movement, which had seen a resurgence under Mansour.
He was killed just nine months after being formally appointed leader following a bitter power struggle upon the confirmation of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.
US President Barack Obama, who authorised the drone strikes, said Mansour had rejected efforts “to seriously engage in peace talks”, asserting that direct negotiations with the Afghan government were the only way to end the attritional conflict.
The US killing of Mansour showed that Washington has at least for now abandoned hopes of reviving the direct peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, which broke down last summer.
Observers say Akhundzada, who is seen as more of a spiritual figurehead than a military commander, will emulate Mansour in shunning peace talks with the Afghan government.