Afghan forces end Taliban siege, death toll reaches 10

Explosions and gunfire rang out as militants dressed in military uniforms stormed a court complex in northern Afghanistan

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Afghan security forces on Thursday brought an end to a six-hour gun and grenade siege by Taliban insurgents on a court complex in northern Afghanistan, with the death toll rising to 10.

“Five security personnel and five civilians were killed and 66 others were wounded,” said Abdul Raziq Qaderi, the acting provincial police chief of Balkh province.

Explosions and gunfire rang out as militants dressed in military uniforms stormed a court complex in northern Afghanistan in an assault that highlighted the country’s fragile security situation.

The ongoing assault in Mazar-i-Sharif city comes just before the start of the Taliban’s traditional spring offensive, set to be the first fighting season when Afghan security forces battle insurgents without full NATO support.

The assailants threw grenades and exchanged gunfire with Afghan security forces, setting ablaze one of the buildings in the compound, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

“Our initial information shows that armed men entered the provincial Appeals Court in Mazar-i-Sharif today,” Abdul Raziq Qaderi, acting police chief of Balkh province, told AFP.

“Gunmen exchanged fire with Afghan security forces and the attack is still under way,” he added.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities but at least 20 wounded people, including women and children, were brought to the provincial public hospital.

“Police, prosecutors and court staff were among those wounded,” Noor Mohammad Faiz, a senior doctor at the hospital, told AFP.

The attack comes a day after an American soldier was killed by an Afghan counterpart in eastern Afghanistan, the first insider attack since Washington announced a delay in troop withdrawals from the country.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s assault, which underscores Afghanistan’s precarious security situation as U.S.-led foreign troops pull back from the frontlines after a 13-year war against the Taliban.

NATO’s combat mission formally ended in December but a small follow-up foreign force has stayed on to train and support the local security forces.

President Barack Obama last month reversed plans to shrink the U.S. force in Afghanistan this year by nearly half, an overture to the country’s new reform-minded leader, President Ashraf Ghani.

Hosting Ghani at the White House for their first presidential head-to-head, Obama agreed to keep the current level of 9,800 U.S. troops until the end of 2015.

The Taliban, who have waged a deadly insurgency since they were ousted from power in late 2001, warned that the announcement would damage any prospects of peace talks as they vowed to continue fighting.

Taliban insurgents have already stepped up suicide attacks on government targets following an Afghan army offensive that began in southern Helmand province more than two months ago.

The up-tick in attacks has taken a heavy toll on ordinary Afghans.

The number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan jumped 22 percent in 2014, a recent U.N. report said, as NATO troops withdrew from combat.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan attributed the rise to intensification in ground fighting, resulting in a total of 10,548 civilian casualties last year.

Afghan forces are currently bracing for what is expected to be a bloody summer push by the Taliban and the government has also raised the ominous prospect of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) making inroads into Afghanistan.