Afghanistan observed a national day of mourning Sunday after a Taliban suicide assault killed scores of soldiers in the deadliest insurgent raid on an military base in 16 years.
Friday’s coordinated attack on the regional headquarters of the Afghan National Army in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of the northern Balkh province, has reportedly left at least 140 soldiers dead and many more wounded.
But the Afghan government has not yet officially released the number of casualties as it investigates the incident.
“Afghan president has ordered a full and technical investigation with regards to the attack on the military base. In order that the result of the investigation must be acceptable to the president and the people of Afghanistan,” Shah Hussain Murtazawi told a news conference in Kabul.
Unnamed security officials and politicians in Balkh have told local reporters the death toll could be as high as at least 180 and that Afghan special forces were also among the victims.
Afghan lawmakers, during heated debates in parliament, harshly criticized authorities for withholding the official death toll. They also demanded top security officials be summoned to parliament to explain their failure to prevent the attack.
Ten heavily armed Taliban suicide bombers disguised as soldiers and riding Afghan military vehicles stormed the 209th Shaheen Corps headquarters and made their way into the center of the heavily fortified facility.
One group of assailants sprayed Afghan soldiers with bullets as they were leaving a mosque following afternoon prayers, while another group stormed a dining facility at the military compound before Afghan commandos surrounded and engaged them in fierce gun-battles, according to witnesses.
At least four attackers had been serving at the base as soldiers and played a key role in executing the deadly raid, the Taliban asserted while claiming responsibility for the violence.
Survivors also told reporters they believed without “inside help” it would not have been possible for Taliban insurgents to make their way deep into the heavily fortified military base.
US Embassy’s statement
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in a statement Sunday, strongly condemned the attack as a “despicable” act and extended its “heartfelt” condolences to the families, friends, and co-workers of the victims.
“This vicious attack only strengthens America’s resolve to stand by our brave and courageous Afghan allies. The U.S. commitment is as strong as the hardest steel, and the barbarism of the enemy only hardens our resolve,” it said.
Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid released details of the attack on Saturday along with a picture of the purported bombers. He claimed the siege lasted for ten hours and “up to 500 enemy soldiers were killed and wounded, including key officers.”
Mujahid said the deadly raid was a retaliation for the recent killings of Taliban shadow governors for the neighboring Kunduz and Baghlan provinces along with a number of colleagues by U.S. backed Afghan forces.
He warned that Friday’s attack on the army base is “a message for all the enemy soldiers, police, intelligence operatives and relevant [Afghan] institutions that this year’s [Taliban] operations will be more brutal and painful for them.”
Afghan security forces have suffered massive casualties since U.S.-led foreign combat troops left Afghanistan in 2014. In the first eight months of 2016, insurgent attacks killed close to 7,000 Afghan security forces, according to figures local officials shared with the U.S. military.