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Afghans mourn casualties of deadliest Taliban attack on army base

Farshad Usyan, AFP | Afghan security personnel guard the site of an ongoing attack on an army compound in Balkh province on April 21, 2017.

Afghanistan on Sunday observed a national day of mourning for the victims of a Taliban attack on a military base in northern Afghanistan, which killed more than 100 soldiers.

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Flags flew at half-mast across the country and special prayers were said for the dead in Friday’s attack on an Afghan army base in the northern province of Balkh.

The exact toll of the attack on the high security base was not known although Afghan defence ministry officials said more than 100 soldiers were killed. The official failure to release casualty figures as well as initial attempts to minimise the extent of the attack sparked anger among Afghans amid calls for Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi’s resignation.

Around 10 Taliban fighters, dressed in Afghan army uniforms and driving military vehicles, stormed the base, killing or wounding at least 140 soldiers, according to some Defence Ministry officials. Other officials said the toll was likely to be even higher.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the base, the headquarters for the 209th Corps, on Saturday. He has also held an emergency meeting with senior security officials and called for a “serious” investigation into the attack.

The scale and sophistication of the assault makes it the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base, underscoring the difficulties Afghan security forces face in putting down a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

The soldiers from the Afghan National Army's 209th Corps were having lunch or emerging from Friday noon prayers at a mosque in the base when the attack started, according to officials.

The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, and several detonated suicide vests packed with explosives.

Witnesses described a scene of confusion as soldiers, unarmed during the noon lunch and prayer time, were uncertain about the identity of the uniform-clad attackers.

"It was a chaotic scene and I didn't know what to do," said one army officer wounded in the attack. "There was gunfire and explosions everywhere."

The base outside the Balkh capital of Mazar-e-Sharif is responsible for much of northern and northeastern Afghanistan, including Kunduz province, where there has been heavy fighting over the past two years. The 209th is one of seven corps in the Afghan army.

Taliban claims attack as retribution

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, marking the start of the spring fighting season. In a statement released to news organisations Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it was in retribution for the recent killing of several senior Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan.

Four of the attackers were Taliban sympathisers who had infiltrated the army and served for some time, Mujahid said. The claim has not been confirmed by the Afghan army.

The Taliban released a picture of 10 men – dressed in military uniforms, including helmets, epaulettes and knee-pads – lined up against the white flag used by the hardline Islamist group. A list of names of the attackers were also released, but they would be difficult to confirm since the Taliban frequently uses noms de guerre.

Outrage by Afghans weary of violence

Friday’s attack sparked outrage on social media sites by Afghans weary of the deteriorating security situation despite a US-led counterinsurgency that has dragged on for over 15 years. The attack, which took several hours to put down, sparked fears that the insurgency this spring could be particularly bloody.

The Afghan army’s failure to immediately reveal the extent of the toll also drew condemnation from journalists and ordinary Afghans.

Afghan officials have been known to minimise casualty figures in some major attacks on military sites, such as in early March when gunmen disguised as doctors stormed the country's largest military hospital in Kabul, killing dozens.

In a Twitter post, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah condemned the attack, noting that, an “attack on holy places is forbidden in every belief, what the Taliban did in Afghanistan today was against all values".

Afghan security forces in the line of fire

The NATO-led military coalition deploys advisers to the base where the attack occurred to train and assist Afghan forces. Coalition officials said no international troops were involved in the attack.

"The attack on the 209th Corps today shows the barbaric nature of the Taliban," the commander of coalition forces, US General John Nicholson, said in a statement on Friday.

According to US watchdog SIGAR, casualties among Afghan security forces soared by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed.

The attack on the Kabul hospital in March came a week after 16 people were killed in simultaneous Taliban suicide assaults on two security compounds in the capital.

More than a third of Afghanistan is outside government control and many regions are fiercely contested by various insurgent groups, as Kabul's repeated bids to launch peace negotiations with the Taliban have failed.

Nicholson in February told the US Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington that he needed "a few thousand" more troops to help train and assist the Afghan forces.

The US has around 8,400 troops in the country with about another 5,000 from NATO allies assisting a much larger Afghan force in the war against the Taliban and other Islamist militants. 

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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