At least 85 Afghan soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded in a surprise attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan when militants posing as Afghan National Army personnel stormed an Afghan army base with heavily armed fighters and suicide bombers, Afghan counterterrorism officials and U.S. security personnel told Circa.
The 209 Shaheen Base complex, located in Balkh province, is the command center for all Afghan military operations in northern Afghanistan.
The death toll is expected to rise, sources said.
The fighting began at 1:30 p.m. and lasted about five hours, security officials said.
U.S. security officials in the region told Circa more than ten militants "wearing ANA [Afghan National Army] uniforms and driving to ANA ranger vehicles, equipped with heavy weapons, suicide vests launched the complex attack."
"One of the militants blew himself up near the mosque of the base and then heavy firing began," Afghanistan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Circa. The attack began two days after Interior Minister Taj Mohammed Jahid visited the base, Afghan officials said.
Balkh province Governor Atta Muhammad Nur condemned the attack and warned that security is extremely fragile in the once peaceful northern provinces and "that there is an increased threat if security forces do not take an offensive stance against the militants."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said four of the insurgents who helped plan the attack in the city famous for the Blue Mosque were actually soldiers working as spies for the militant organization.
"Our militants are in the hands of four Taliban commanders, who already served in this base as Afghan Army soldiers and they know every corner of the base, so it's not easy for Afghan forces to kill them," said a statement written in Pashtu. The Taliban statement said they are still fighting Afghan army soldiers, which total in the thousands on this base, and have killed more than 100.
The Taliban spokesman also claimed in a statement that the Afghan base commander Abdurauf Muhtaj was killed in the attack, but Circa cannot confirm this detail.
The Taliban also claimed they killed Afghan commander Agha Sherin and said their insurgents targeted Army personnel who were "gathered inside their dining hall."
The militants were allegedly carrying fake identification cards, drove in official vehicles and posed as soldiers from Faryab Afghan National Army base, another base located in the area, when they passed through security at the first gate leading into the facility, according to U.S. security reports.
One of the attackers, wearing a suicide vest, detonated himself at the second gate of the compound and another detonated himself in the mosque on base, according to the report.
According to the security report, "The remaining were engaged in a firefight with Afghan National Security Forces."
U.S. officials and military personnel have long been concerned about Taliban insurgency forces penetrating Afghanistan's security forces.
U.S. bases in the region have also been plagued by insider attacks targeting U.S. personnel, non-governmental organizations and troops in the region.
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Sajid Khan contributed to this report from Afghanistan @iusajid1