A group of heavily armed Taliban suicide bombers Friday attacked a regional military base in northern Afghanistan, reportedly killing dozens of soldiers in one of the deadliest assaults on Afghan forces in recent years.
Local authorities said the coordinated attack began with a suicide bomber exploding himself at a checkpoint, making way for other assailants to enter the headquarters of the 209th Shaheen Corps in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh province.
Witnesses told VOA the insurgents were aboard two Afghan army vehicles and disguised as government soldiers. They targeted personnel of the Afghan National Army, who were leaving a mosque after offering afternoon prayers.
A group of attackers then stormed a dining facility and inflicted further casualties before Afghan commandos surrounded and engaged them in a gunbattle.
A U.S. Central Command spokesman told reporters in Washington that dozens of “friendly” Afghans died during the attack.
Colonel John Thomas described the incident as a “significant attack from enemy forces” and said “we are helping the Afghan forces in any way that we can.”
“We’re talking probably more than 50 casualties,” he said.
Taliban claims responsibility
The Taliban took credit for the attack, saying it involved a large number of suicide bombers who had inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces.
Afghan Defense Ministry officials, at the beginning of the attack, confirmed the deaths of at least eight soldiers.
But politicians in Mazar-i-Sharif and journalists late Friday said the death toll was much higher, with some saying it could exceed 60.
Afghan authorities had not released the latest casualty toll, though, hours after the siege ended.
The number of attackers was said to be between eight and 10. Some of them reportedly detonated explosives strapped to their bodies, while others were gunned down by security forces, ending the hours-long siege.
The Afghan military base houses tens of thousands of soldiers who are regularly engaged in anti-Taliban operations in troubled northern regions of the country.
Military advisers and trainers from NATO’s U.S.-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan are also stationed at the base. But there were no reports of foreign troop casualties.
General John Nicholson, U.S. commander of the international military mission, denounced the violence as “murderous and reprehensible actions.”
A statement quoted him as saying the assault showed “the barbaric nature of the Taliban. They killed soldiers at prayer in a mosque and others in a dining facility.”
Bombing in November
Balkh is among Afghanistan’s relatively peaceful and prosperous provinces.
A truck bombing this past November in the provincial capital targeted the German consulate, killing six Afghans and injuring more than 100 others.
Friday’s insurgent assault was the deadliest since April 2016, when Taliban suicide bombers stormed an office of the Afghan intelligence agency in Kabul, killing at least 60 people.
The latest violence came a month after suicide bombers assaulted the country’s largest military hospital in the Afghan capital, killing about 40 people and wounding dozens more. Doctors and soldiers were among the victims.
That attack was claimed by loyalists of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.