Taleban fighters hit Afghan army base

Relatives carrying a victim's coffin yesterday, a day after a Taleban attack on an army base in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The attack began at around 1pm in a crowded area where soldiers were leaving Friday prayers or eating lunch.
Relatives carrying a victim's coffin yesterday, a day after a Taleban attack on an army base in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The attack began at around 1pm in a crowded area where soldiers were leaving Friday prayers or eating lunch.PHOTO: REUTERS

Over 100 soldiers killed after six assailants in military uniforms set off bombs and open fire

MAZAR-I-SHARIF (Afghanistan) • As many as 150 Afghan soldiers have been killed by Taleban fighters disguised in military uniforms, in what would be the deadliest attack on an Afghan military base, officials said.

The Afghan Defence Ministry said the toll in Friday's attack was "more than 100" soldiers killed and wounded. But an Afghan army source, who was at the base at the time of the attack, put the death toll as high as 150.

The attack on the headquarters of the 209th Corps, near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province, began at around 1pm in a crowded area where soldiers were leaving Friday prayers or eating lunch.

Six assailants dressed in military uniforms drove in two army vehicles past a first checkpoint, according to army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Abdul Qahar Aram.

At the second checkpoint, a suicide bomber blew up his explosives, allowing the militants to enter, take up positions and start firing at soldiers, who were leaving prayers or making their way to lunch.

"The dining room and the mosque are close to each other," said Lt-Col Aram. "It was lunch time; they entered both the mosque and the dining room."

The Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack through a spokesman. In a message posted on Twitter, he said the assailants were led by four soldiers, who were Taleban sympathisers, inside the base.

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

Most of the carnage was caused by one of the suicide bombers near the mosque, said Mr Mohammad Abdeh, a lawmaker from Balkh.

The attack was quelled after a gun battle lasting more than six hours; soldiers were unable to distinguish the assailants from friendly troops because of the army uniforms the attackers wore.

The soldiers and officers killed were mostly unarmed, sources said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday to pay a "courtesy visit" to wounded soldiers, his office said.

General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, praised Afghan commandos for bringing the "atrocity to an end".

Meanwhile, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported yesterday that thousands of former Taleban fighters may have entered Germany over the past two years among an influx of more than a million migrants and refugees.

Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees told security officials that thousands of migrants had identified themselves as former Taleban insurgents during the asylum application process, the magazine reported. At least 70 Afghan men are being investigated by Germany's over-stretched chief federal prosecutor, though it is not clear if all of them are suspected of being active Taleban militants, reported Der Spiegel.

Six men are being held under investigatory detention, while preliminary court hearings involving several others are due to start next week, the magazine added.

No comment was immediately available from the German migration office or federal prosecutors.

REUTERS, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Taleban fighters hit Afghan army base'. Print Edition | Subscribe