Taliban militants stormed the airport complex in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar city on Tuesday, triggering gunfights and explosions as a conference kicked off in Pakistan with hopes of reviving peace talks with the insurgents.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attack, the second major assault in a span of 24 hours in the city recognised as the birthplace of the Taliban, although several passengers were trapped in an airport terminal.
Taliban gunmen were targeting residential blocks housing government employees and the joint Afghan-NATO military base at the airport, said Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor.
“Several insurgents managed to breach the first gate of the complex,” he told AFP, as the battles raged.
“They have taken up position in a school inside the complex.”
Local residents, who were told to hunker down in their homes, reported piercing explosions and a booming volley of gunfire.
Mohammad Mohsin Sultani, the military spokesman in Kandahar, said Afghan troops were engaged in a heavy firefight to beat back the attackers, although their exact numbers were unclear.
Some passengers were left trapped inside the civilian terminal, far from the fighting in the sprawling complex, when their commercial flight to India was suspended, Kandahar airport director Ahmadullah Faizi told AFP.
The Taliban are ramping up attacks on government and foreign targets despite the onset of the harsh winter season, when the fighting usually winds down.
Tuesday’s attack comes after days of fevered speculation about the fate of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansour following reports that he was critically wounded in an internal firefight.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Kandahar attack, which comes on the eve of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s high-profile visit to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia regional conference.
“A number of martyrdom seekers armed with heavy and light weapons entered Kandahar airbase undetected and have begun engaging the large number of foreign invaders and their hirelings inside,” the Islamist group said on their website.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter claimed that “150 Afghan and foreign soldiers” had been killed in the fierce fighting.
The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
Ghani’s willingness to visit longtime regional nemesis Pakistan for the conference, despite a spike in cross-border tensions, has signalled a renewed push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban.
“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 and wields considerable influence over the insurgents, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.
But the talks soon stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of their longtime leader Mullah Omar.
Tuesday’s brazen raid comes after days of frantic conjecture about the fate of Mansour following reports that he was shot in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan.
The Taliban released an audio message Saturday, purportedly from Mansour, vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as “enemy propaganda”.
Ghani also said Monday that there was no evidence to prove that Mansour is dead after multiple insurgent sources cast doubt on the authenticity of the Taliban audio message.
The Islamists’ denials have fallen on sceptical ears, however, especially after they kept the death of longtime chief Mullah Omar secret for two years.
The Taliban, which formally split for the first time last month, had appeared anxious to quell speculation about Mansour’s death. Rumours of his demise could potentially intensify the power struggle within the insurgent movement.
Mansour’s group has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency.
They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years.
Two Taliban suicide bombers raided a Kandahar police station on Monday, triggering an all-night firefight with police officers. Both attackers were killed in the gun battle, in which three officials were wounded.