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Afghan Taliban Launches Attack on Kandahar Airport

Militants fought security forces Tuesday as regional powers geared up for a conference intended to kickstart peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

by Reuters and VICE News
Dec 8 2015, 7:19pm

Photo by Dave Martin/PH DFM/sd/EPA

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Taliban forces attacked the airport in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Tuesday and were engaged in fighting with security forces, officials said.

"Several insurgents (have) taken up position inside a school and are firing at the airport," said Sameem Khpalwak, a spokesman for the local governor.

He said there were no reports of casualties and Afghan forces were returning fire.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said a number of fighters had entered the airport grounds and were fighting security forces.

"A number of mujahideen martyrdom-seekers equipped with heavy and light weapons entered Kandahar airport and have attacked invading forces," the Taliban said in a statement, according to the AFP. "Fierce fighting is ongoing."

The latest violence comes the day before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was scheduled to attend the Heart of Asia regional conference in Pakistan, which has been convened with hopes to kick start the next round of peace talks between regional powers and the militant group.

Pakistan hosted the first round of negotiations in July, but the talks reportedly stalled. Around the same time, the Taliban belatedly confirmed that their elusive and longtime leader Mullah Omar had died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan in April 2013. Tuberculosis is believed to have been the cause of death.

Related: Taliban Meeting Allegedly Devolves Into Gunfight, Leading to Reports That Its Leader is Dead

Omar led the Taliban to victory during the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in Afghanistan and became the movement's leader in 1996.

His support for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden prompted the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The start of the regional conference also comes after several days of speculation that the Taliban's current leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed or wounded in a shootout between senior members of the Islamist movement.

There are conflicting accounts of the incident, with different factions of the Taliban reporting different versions of events, and some are denying the shooting even took place. Others have admitted to a shoot-out but claim Mansour is still alive.

Over the weekend, the Taliban released an audio message it said was from its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour to counter widespread reports of his death. The 16-minute message said that the allegedly erroneous reports had been deliberately spread to create divisions in the Taliban.

"I am among my people. This incident never happened and it is not true. This is propaganda of the enemy," the man speaking on the message said.

The Taliban has been struggling to contain divisions ever since Mansour, the movement's longtime number two, was named leader after Mullah Omar's death was confirmed in July. Splinter factions disputed Mansour's leadership, and accused him of being a pawn of Pakistani intelligence. Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund has formed his own Taliban group and has openly challenged Mansour's authority. But after the Taliban captured the city of Kunduz last September, Mansour enjoyed a surge of legitimacy.

On Tuesday a local police spokesman said that dozens of people have been killed and dozens more wounded in renewed fighting between rival Taliban factions in Shindand district near the western Afghan city of Herat.

Ehsanullah Hayat, a police spokesman in Herat, said 54 insurgents had been killed and around 40 wounded so far in the fighting between commanders loyal to Mullah Mansour and his rival Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which he said was continuing.

Watch VICE News' documentary Embedded in Northern Afghanistan: The Resurgence of the Taliban: