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37 killed in Taliban siege at Afghan airport

Kandahar: Thirty seven people were killed when Taliban insurgents wearing military uniforms stormed Kandahar airport, triggering pitched gun battles in a lengthy siege as President Ashraf Ghani today sought to revive peace talks at a regional conference.

Nearly 24 hours after the siege began, one of the 11 assailants was still holding out against security forces late today, in the most serious attack on the largest military installation in the south of the country in 14 years of war.

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

“The fighting started around 6:00 PM (yesterday) and intensified over the night,” 30-year-old university student Izatullah, who lives inside the complex, told AFP.

“Soldiers were calling on Taliban attackers to let women and children go, but the attackers declined.

We could hear children screaming during the fighting.”

The Afghan defence ministry today evening said nine insurgents had been gunned down, one was injured and another was still holed up inside a building.

“Unfortunately during the battle, 37 innocent Afghans were killed and 35 others injured,” the ministry added.

It did not offer any breakdown of the casualties, but a Western official briefed on the matter told AFP that it included a large number of civilians.

“This is the most serious attack we’ve witnessed against the (Kandahar) complex”, which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base, the official said.

The militants managed to breach the first gate of the high-security air field and took up position in an old school building, engaging security forces in fierce firefights.

The Taliban posted a picture on their website of the militants it said were involved in the brazen 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 reasons that were not revealed.

“The martyrdom seekers… Entered Kandahar airbase undetected… And began thunderous attacks,” the post said.

It claimed the assailants reported via telephone that some 80 Afghan and foreign forces had been killed and 13 armoured carriers destroyed.

The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.

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