Taleban attack Afghan government compound; at least 44 killed

HERAT, Afghanistan (AP, AFP) - Suicide bombers disguised as Afghan soldiers attacked a government compound on Wednesday in a failed bid to free more than a dozen Taleban prisoners being transferred to court proceedings in western Afghanistan. At least 44 people were reported killed, including nine of the attackers.

"I can confirm that 34 civilians, six army and four policemen have been killed, and 91 people, the majority of them civilians, have been injured," Mr Najib Danish, an interior ministry deputy spokesman, told AFP. "Nine attackers have also been killed."

The death toll was the highest in Afghanistan from a single attack since a Shi'ite Muslim shrine was bombed in Kabul in December 2011, killing 80 people.

"The attack is over, but the casualties have unfortunately risen," Farah Governor Mohammad Akram Khpalwak told AFP, putting the final death toll as high as 46.

"In total, 34 civilians and 12 (Afghan) security forces have been killed in the attack. We have also discovered the bodies of eight attackers, more than 100 people have also been injured."

The assault in Farah province was the latest example of the Taleban's ability to strike official institutions despite usually tight security measures. The persistent violence has undermined confidence in President Hamid Karzai's government as it tries to take over its own security ahead of the withdrawal of international combat forces by the end of next year.

Six men wearing suicide vests drove into the centre of the provincial capital, which has the same name, in Afghan national army vehicles that allowed them to bypass checkpoints, provincial police chief Agha Noor Kemtoz said.

Two of the attackers blew themselves up inside one of the vehicles, while four others jumped out of the second and ran toward the courthouse and prosecutor's office, he said. Guards opened fire, killing one of the attackers, while the other three fled to nearby buildings and engaged in a fierce gunbattle that left civil servants and government officials holed up in their offices.

Mr Kemtoz said the attack aimed to free 15 Taleban prisoners who were being transferred to the courthouse for trial.

"Definitely, the plan was to free the prisoners with this attack, but thank God, they did not succeed," he said. "All the prisoners are accounted for."

Two policemen and three civilians, including a judge and his son, also were killed. The director of public health for the province, Mr Abdul Jabar Shayeq, said 72 people also were wounded, including 12 security forces and 60 civilians.

Taleban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent to reporters.

Farah province, which is bordered by Iran to the west and Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province to the east, has seen an uptick in attacks against the local government in recent months as militants seek to disrupt efforts to stabilise the area.