KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban suicide bombers killed 19 people, including 17 members of the Afghan security forces, on Saturday in an attack in southern Kandahar province, the focus of NATO efforts to turn the tide of the war.
Insurgents used guns, suicide bombs and a car laden with explosives in an assault on the provincial police headquarters in the city of Kandahar.
Provincial officials said 15 police and an intelligence official were killed. NATO-led forces said later the death toll was 19, including two civilians. They said 49 people were wounded, including 23 civilians and nine children.
The assault lasted for several hours as gunmen opened fire from the windows of a nearby wedding hall and three suicide bombers blew themselves up. A car bomb detonated near the perimeter of the police compound, the NATO-led coalition said.
The well-orchestrated attack on the high-profile government target underscored the potency of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s traditional heartland and focus of a NATO offensive to take back areas under the sway of a parallel Taliban authority.
NATO and Afghan forces scrambled to respond during the attack as gunfire rang out over the city.
The Kandahar governor said a fourth insurgent wearing a suicide vest was shot and wounded before he managed to detonate his explosives. The militant was taken into police custody.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“The enemies of Afghanistan have once again shown their evil intent,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement, ordering security to be intensified in Kandahar.
The United States has hailed security gains in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province after an offensive last year to drive back insurgents from key areas along Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan.
Washington plans to start withdrawing some of the 100,000 troops it has in Afghanistan this year.
But violence across the country has continued to rise to yet higher levels, with the insurgency spreading from strongholds in the south to previously peaceful areas of the north and west.
Kandahar is the spiritual homeland of a tenacious Taliban insurgency now in its 10th year, and key to Washington’s efforts in the war amid growing frustration among the U.S. public.
Tens of thousands of foreign and Afghan troops have run “clearing” operations in some of the most volatile districts around Kandahar City, while Afghan police, mentored by foreign trainers, formed security perimeters inside the city.
But while the city has seen a drop in large-scale attacks over the past year, militants have stepped up a campaign of targeted killings, particularly against government figures, hampering efforts to extend the rule of the central government.
Last month, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed Kandahar’s deputy governor as he left his home.
Additional reporting by Matt Robinson in KABUL; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Missy Ryan and Diana Abdallah