At least two dozen Afghan security forces were killed Friday in an insider attack on their base in southern Afghanistan, officials told AFP, as fighting raged in the war-weary country while efforts to start talks with the Taliban stalled.
The pre-dawn attack in Zabul province comes as Afghanistan is grappling with several crises including an increase in Taliban violence that has thrown a supposed peace process into turmoil, mounting coronavirus cases, and a political feud that has seen two men claim the presidency.
The attack in Zabul saw several “infiltrators” open fire on their comrades as they slept, according to provincial governor Rahmatullah Yarmal, in one of the deadliest attacks since the US signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban last month.
The pre-dawn raid targeted a joint police and army headquarters near Qalat, the provincial capital.
“In the attack, 14 Afghan army forces and 10 policemen were killed,” Zabul provincial council chief Ata Jan Haq Bayan said.
He added that four other Afghan service members were missing.
“The attackers had connections with the Taliban insurgents,” Bayan said.
They fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with a pickup truck, weapons and ammunition.
Yarmal confirmed the toll to AFP.
Hours after the incident the defence ministry vowed to retaliate, while also giving a lower death toll for the attack, saying just 17 were killed.
The Afghan security forces “will not leave this attack unanswered and will avenge the blood of the martyrs” the ministry added in a statement.
The ministry has been known to downplay the size of attacks and losses.
The US embassy later condemned the attack on Twitter, saying “the time for peace is now”.
“In the midst of a global pandemic & on Nowruz, attacks like these are obscene,” the statement added, referring to Persian New Year which is widely celebrated across Afghanistan.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zabul province, bordering Pakistan, has long been an insurgent stronghold and was the holdout for former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, who died in 2013.
– ‘Active defence’ –
The Zabul attack comes just a day after Afghan Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid called on the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire as a way of tackling the novel coronavirus, which observers fear is spreading unchecked through the impoverished country.
Khalid also said Afghan forces should assume a more aggressive “active defence” posture against the Taliban, who have continued attacks across the country since signing a deal with the US on February 29.
The continued uptick in violence comes as the US continued to plead with leaders in Kabul to press forward with efforts to engage with the Taliban while resolving their political crisis that has divided the government.
In a tweet marking Nowruz, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the Taliban deal, called for Afghan leaders to take advantage of the “historic opportunity for peace” and work with the Taliban to contain the coronavirus.
Both the Taliban and Afghan government in Kabul continue to bicker over a proposed prisoner swap that was set to pave the way for the opening of talks between the two sides.
The US-Taliban deal said the Afghan government, which was not a signatory, should release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before “intra-Afghan” talks start.
President Ashraf Ghani, however, has agreed only to release 1,500, with the remaining 3,500 to be freed as negotiations begin.
The Taliban have rejected the offer and the government’s release of prisoners did not begin as decreed on Saturday.
The impasse and continued fighting along with the world’s preoccupation with the spreading coronavirus pandemic has sparked fears that the opportunity for any type of peace deal is shrinking dramatically.