KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: At least eight people were killed after Taliban militants stormed an airport complex in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar city, triggering an all-night gun battle into Wednesday that coincided with a regional conference that had raised hopes of reviving peace talks.
Residents of the complex said they could hear soldiers pleading with the insurgents to free women and children, and the children screaming, during the fighting.
The attack on the sprawling complex, which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base, is the second major Taliban assault in the space of 24 hours in the city recognized as the birthplace of the Taliban.
The government claimed on Wednesday morning that an unknown number of assailants had been killed but local residents, who were told to hunker down in their homes, were still reporting gunfire and explosions.
“Eight people, including civilians and soldiers, have been killed,” Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, told AFP.
Dawood Shah Wafadar, a military commander in Kandahar, gave a higher death toll of 18.
“The fighting started around 6:00 pm (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.”
Some passengers were also 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 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 has signaled a renewed push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban, despite a spike in cross-border tensions.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying on Twitter that “150 Afghan and foreign soldiers” had been killed in the fierce fighting.
The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
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.
The Taliban have been ramping up attacks on government and foreign targets despite the onset of the harsh winter season when the fighting usually winds down.