Taliban fighters overpowered poorly armed policemen in a district in eastern Afghanistan early Tuesday in a rare show of force that prompted local officials to flee.

Taliban militants, who had been encroaching on the Waygal district for weeks, launched a coordinated assault on the local government building and police station shortly after midnight, Gen. Shamsur Rahman, the police chief of Nuristan province, said in an interview.

“We did not have enough police or weapons to fight back,” he said.

The attack underscored the challenges the Afghan government and NATO troops face as they attempt to start shifting responsibility for security to Afghan forces this summer. It follows Taliban assertions of responsibility in recent days for a suicide bombing that killed at least 24 people and a mass kidnapping of 50 men, both also in eastern provinces.

The Taliban overran a small U.S. outpost in the Waygal district in the summer of 2008. The attack killed nine American soldiers and led to debate about whether restoring government control in such remote areas was worth the risk to foreign troops.

Rahman said the insurgents looted the government buildings on Tuesday and are now in control of the district.

Waygal residents are torn over whether to side with the Taliban or government forces, the police chief said.

“If the government has control of the district, people will support the government,” he said. “If the Taliban is in control, people will support the Taliban.”

A Taliban spokesman said in a statement that 90 fighters participated in the “large-scale” attack. The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said Taliban fighters took 13 police officers hostage and seized dozens of weapons.

Rahman said provincial officials hope to recapture the district in the coming days.

Hawa Alam Nuristani, a former lawmaker from the province who sits on a government council tasked with brokering a peace deal with the Taliban, said the takeover was not unexpected.

She said the Taliban had come to control all but the government buildings in the district in recent months.

“Losing Waygal district is a dangerous signal to the government,” Nuristani said. “Waygal is one of the most important districts in the province.”

Also Tuesday, military officials said three NATO troops had been killed in separate attacks in eastern Afghanistan. The officials did not specify the locations or types of attacks.

Hamdard is a special correspondent.