Taliban kill more than 140 Afghan soldiers at army base

Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul and Spencer Ackerman in New York
Afghan national army troops arrive near the site of an ongoing attack on an army headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan on Friday. Photograph: Anil Usyan/Reuters

At least 140 Afghan soldiers have been killed after Taliban suicide attackers disguised as army personnel targeted a national army base in the north of the country.

It was the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since July 2016, when two Isis suicide bombers killed 80 Hazara protesters.

The defence ministry said more than 100 Afghan soldiers had been killed or wounded.

One official in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the attack occurred, said on Saturday that at least 140 soldiers had been killed and many others wounded. Other officials said the toll was likely to be higher. The Afghan government had yet to release exact casualty figures.

The ministry said 10 Taliban insurgents had carried out the attack.

According to an informed official in Mazar-i Sharif, who was not authorised to speak to the media, the attackers arrived in two Afghan national army vehicles with licence plates from the western Faryab province.

Some of the soldiers pretended to be injured, with casts on their legs and drips in their arms, in order to pass through the first checkpoint. At the second checkpoint, guards became suspicious and one suicide bomber blew himself up.

Once inside the base, at least one other suicide bomber detonated his vest in the dining facility, and another outside the mosque. The rest of the attackers then went on a shooting spree, the official said.

A bodyguard at the base, who asked not to be named, said: “After prayer we went outside and saw an army vehicle with three to five people in. They came out and opened fire with Kalashnikovs.”

The US military confirmed that coalition personnel were present at the Mazar-i-Sharif base, but there were no reports of casualties among their number. A US security official said the Afghan death toll was “in the neighbourhood” of 130.

In a statement, the US military in Afghanistan condemned the attack.

“The attack on the 209th Corps shows the barbaric nature of the Taliban. They killed soldiers at prayer in a mosque and others in a dining facility,” the US commander John Nicholson said in the statement on Friday.

Afghanistan map

A month ago militants disguised as doctors stormed an army hospital in the capital, Kabul, and killed at least 38 wounded soldiers and doctors.

In April 2016, suicide bombers killed more than 60 people in an attack on an intelligence headquarters in central Kabul. That attack was the deadliest in an urban area since the beginning of the war in 2001.

Mazar-i-Sharif is one of Afghanistan’s safest cities but home to large military facilities, which also house some foreign troops. In November, the compound of the German consulate was rammed by a truck strapped with explosives, killing six and injuring more than 120, all Afghans.

Donald Trump said little about Afghanistan during his election campaign but is conducting a policy review of America’s longest war.

His national security adviser, Lt Gen HR McMaster, an Afghanistan war veteran, visited the country last weekend and met President Ashraf Ghani.

In January, Nicholson requested thousands more US troops to aid the Afghan security forces, which suffered more than 6,785 deaths and more than 10,000 injured in 2016.

The commander called the high levels of casualties a “major concern” and attributed them to poor leadership and an overreliance on static checkpoints.

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