KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) – Taleban militants stormed the airport complex in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar city on Tuesday, triggering gunfights and explosions as a regional conference kicked off in Pakistan with hopes of reviving peace talks with the insurgents.
There was no immediate information on casualties in the ongoing attack, the first major assault after days of fevered speculation that Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in an internal firefight.
“Several insurgents managed to breach the first gate of the complex,” Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, told AFP.
“They have taken up position in a school inside the complex.” Mohammad Mohsin Sultani, the military spokesman in Kandahar, said the exact number of attackers was unclear and Afghan troops were engaged in a heavy gunfight with them.
The Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes a day before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is due to visit Islamabad for the Heart of Asia regional conference.
“A number of mujahideen martyrdom-seekers equipped with heavy and light weapons entered Kandahar airport and have attacked invading forces,” the Taleban said in as statement.
“Fierce fighting is ongoing.” Ghani’s willingness to visit Pakistan for the conference, a longtime regional nemesis, has signalled a renewed push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taleban.
Pakistan, which has historically supported the Afghan Taleban and wields considerable influence over the insurgents, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.
But the talks soon stalled when the Taleban 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 critically wounded in a shootout with his own commanders in Pakistan.
The Taleban 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 but multiple insurgent sources have cast doubt on the authenticity of the Taleban audio message.
Vehement denials by the Islamist group of any clash have fallen on sceptical ears, especially after they kept the death of longtime chief Mullah Omar secret for two years.
Ghani’s remarks are at odds with those of a government spokesman, who sparked a flurry of reactions when he tweeted on Friday that Mansour was dead.
The Taleban, which saw its first formal split last month, had appeared anxious to quell speculation about Mansour’s death, which could intensify the power struggle within the insurgent movement.
Mansour was declared Taleban leader on July 31 after insurgents confirmed the death of Omar, who led the Islamist movement for about two decades.
But splits immediately emerged in the group, with some top leaders refusing to pledge allegiance to Mansour, saying the process to select him was rushed and biased.