Taliban militants stormed an Afghan court on Wednesday, killing at least 44 people in a bid to free insurgents standing trial, officials said, in the deadliest attack for more than a year.
It was not immediately clear whether the accused men had escaped the court complex in the western town of Farah, although a hospital doctor said one prisoner was among those being treated for injuries.
All nine attackers were killed in the assault, which started with a huge car bomb at the entrance to the court and continued for at least seven hours as security forces hunted down one final surviving assailant.
The brazen and sophisticated attack will raise further questions about the Afghans’ ability to secure the country as NATO winds down its combat mission in the war-torn country by the end of next year.
“I can confirm that 34 civilians, six army and four policemen have been killed and 91 people, the majority of them civilians, have been injured,” Najib Danish, interior ministry deputy spokesman, told AFP.
“Nine attackers have also been killed.”
The death toll was the highest in Afghanistan from a single attack since a Shiite Muslim shrine was bombed in Kabul in December 2011, killing 80 people.
“The attack is over, but the casualties have unfortunately risen,” Farah provincial governor Mohammad Akram Khpalwak told AFP, putting the final death toll as high as 46.
Two women were among the dead, he said.
The governor confirmed that a group of Taliban had been brought for trial at the court in Fatah on Wednesday morning, but gave no further details.
Taliban militants fighting the US-backed central government claimed responsibility for the attack, describing it as a carefully-planned operation that used a vehicle belonging to the Afghan security forces.
“The attack started when it was known through intelligence that the puppet provincial officials were bringing some prisoners including some Taliban for an unjust trial,” spokesman Yusuf Ahmadi said in a statement on their website.
He said a jeep packed with explosives was detonated first, followed by a multiple assault using grenades, suicide vests and guns.
The Taliban claimed that 13 prisoners who had been brought for trial escaped, adding that the death toll included 35 judges, prosecutors, soldiers and police.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack as a “massacre” and said Afghans would “not let such killings of Muslims by the Taliban go unpunished”.
At least two attackers died when they detonated the car bomb, while others who entered the court premises were shot by security forces and one man was killed after a firefight that continued for much of the day, police said.
Abdul Rahman Zhawandon, spokesman for the governor of Farah, said the area was sealed off into Wednesday evening and added that some attackers had also entered a Kabul Bank office attached to the court building.
Wakil Ahmad, a doctor at Farah hospital, said medics were treating scores of wounded including two judges and one court prisoner.
The governor’s compound was around 200 meters away from the scene of attack, an AFP reporter said.
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have frequently targeted government compounds equipped with suicide vests, rockets and machine-guns.
The Taliban insurgency has raged since a 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted their five-year regime from Kabul.
The militia has increasingly widened its attacks outside its main powerbases in the east and south, where NATO forces have focused their attention, to other areas such as Farah which borders Iran.
NATO combat troops are due to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, leaving responsibility for security to Afghan security forces, but there are fears that the violence will increase with their departure.
Last May gunmen dressed in Afghan police uniforms and wearing suicide vests stormed the offices of Governor Khpalwak in Farah and killed seven people.
In November a roadside bomb planted by Taliban insurgents killed 17 civilians -- mostly women and children -- on their way to a wedding party in the province.