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Marathon Kandahar airport siege leaves at least 50 dead

KANDAHAR: The death toll from a 27-hour Taliban siege of Kandahar airport has jumped to at least 50, officials said Thursday, after a conference in Pakistan shored up international support for reviving peace talks.

Eleven suicide attackers on Tuesday breached the high-security complex which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base, taking families hostage and triggering pitched firefights with soldiers.

The raid, which saw militants blowing themselves up among civilians before the area was secured, is the most serious attack on the largest military installation in the south of the country during 14 years of war.

“Fifty of our innocent countrymen, including 10 soldiers, two policemen and 38 civilians, were martyred in the attack,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

The fatalities included women and children and at least 37 others were wounded, it added.

“A group of 11 terrorists attacked a bazaar and a school in the airport complex, took up positions in the area and (some of them) detonated their suicide vests among civilians.”

Witnesses said the militants had taken families hostage, using them as “human shields” and slowing down the military’s clearance operation.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which put the death toll at 54, said the insurgents opened fire in the bazaar, killing and injuring several civilian shopkeepers and their customers.

Some 27 hours after the siege began, soldiers late Wednesday killed the last insurgent who was holed up inside a building and doggedly resisted security forces until the very end.

The Taliban posted a picture on their website of the militants it said were involved in the attack. It shows 10 young men sporting trimmed beards, Kalashnikovs and identical military uniforms.

The face of one of them is obscured with blue ink for unknown reasons.

Despite the severity of the attack and its high death toll, a Western official told AFP that the country had seen worse in recent years.

“It seems that the insurgents failed to get inside the base itself, so it’s not a security breach on the scale of the Camp Bastion attack in 2012,” the official said.

In September 2012, Taliban militants breached Camp Bastion, a heavily fortified airfield in southern Helmand province, killing two US marines and destroying millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft.

– Boost for peace talks? –

An Afghan military commander said radio intercepts showed some of the Kandahar assailants were speaking Urdu, a language more common in neighbouring Pakistan, the Taliban’s historic backer.

The raid coincided with Afghan President Ghani’s high-profile visit to Islamabad on Wednesday for the Heart of Asia conference aimed at promoting regional ties.

Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed commitment to the peace process, with the United States and China also offering support.

Ghani’s willingness to visit Afghanistan’s longtime nemesis has signalled a renewed push to mend badly frayed cross-border ties, which could help jumpstart peace talks with the insurgents.

Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Taliban, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.

But the talks stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar, sparking a power struggle within the movement that led to a group splintering off into a rival faction last month.

The Kandahar raid also came after days of fevered speculation about the fate of new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour following reports he was critically wounded in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan.

The Taliban released an audio message Saturday purportedly from Mansour, vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as “enemy propaganda”.

Mansour’s group has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency.

They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years.

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