At least 37 people were killed when Taliban insurgents wearing military uniforms stormed Kandahar airport, triggering pitched gun battles in a lengthy siege as President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday sought to revive peace talks at a regional conference.
The raid on the sprawling complex, which also houses a joint Nato-Afghan base, is seen as the most serious attack on the largest military installation in southern Afghanistan in 14 years of war.
Witnesses said the assailants had taken some families hostage, using them as “human shields” after storming the complex at sundown on Tuesday, slowing down the military’s clearance operation.
“The fighting started around 6.00pm (Tuesday) and intensified over the night,” 30-year-old university student Izatullah, who lives inside the complex, told AFP.
“Soldiers were calling on Taliban attackers to let women and children go but attackers declined. We could hear children screaming during the fighting.”
More than 20 hours after the siege began, the Afghan defence ministry said nine insurgents had been gunned down, one was injured and another was still holding out against the soldiers.
“Unfortunately during the battle, 37 innocent Afghans were killed and 35 others injured,” the ministry added.
It did not offer any breakdown of the casualties but a Western official briefed on the matter told AFP that it included a large number of civilians.
“This is the most serious attack we’ve witnessed against the (Kandahar) installation,” the official said.
The militants had managed to breach the first gate of the high-security complex and took up position in an old school building, engaging security forces in pitched firefights.
The Taliban posted a picture on their website of the militants it said were involved in the brazen attack. It shows 10 young men sporting trimmed beards, Kalashnikovs and identical military uniforms.
The face of one of them is obscured with blue ink for unknown reasons.
“The martyrdom seekers... entered Kandahar airbase undetected... and began thunderous attacks,” the post said.
It claimed that the assailants reported via telephone that some 80 Afghan and foreign forces had been killed and 13 armoured carriers destroyed.
The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
The raid coincides with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s high-profile visit to Islamabad on Wednesday for the Heart of Asia conference, aimed at promoting regional ties.
Ghani’s willingness to visit longtime nemesis Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Taliban, has signalled a renewed push to mend badly frayed cross-border ties which in turn could help jumpstart peace talks with the insurgents.
The raid also comes after days of fevered speculation about the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour following reports that he was critically wounded in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan.
“It has become a familiar pattern. Whenever there is talk about peace talks, the Taliban launch big attacks,” Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
“It shows that either they want to scuttle efforts towards talks or want big concessions before they reach the negotiating table.”
Pakistan, which has historically supported the Afghan Taliban, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.
But the talks soon stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar, sparking a power struggle within the movement that led to the creation of a rival faction last month.
The leadership of the insurgent group is once again in question, after days of frantic conjecture about the fate of Mansour.
The Taliban released an audio message on Saturday -- purportedly from Mansour -- vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as “enemy propaganda”.
The Islamists’ denials have fallen on sceptical ears, however, especially after they kept Mullah Omar’s death secret for two years, with multiple insurgent sources casting doubt on the authenticity of the message.
Ghani also said on Monday there was no evidence to prove that Mansour was dead.
Rumours of his demise could potentially intensify the simmering rifts within the insurgent movement.
The Taliban has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency.
The insurgents have been ramping up attacks on government and foreign targets despite the onset of the harsh winter season when the fighting usually winds down.