KABUL, Afghanistan -- A Taliban suicide bomber and several gunmen infiltrated an Afghan intelligence base Monday morning, wrecking the compound and killing military personnel, including elite intelligence forces.
Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the interior minister, said an armored Humvee loaded with explosives struck the base in Wardak province before insurgents opened fire.
Estimates of the death toll varied widely, in part because officials of the Afghan spy agency refused to release any information. The most conservative estimate from Afghan officials was at least 12 people killed and more than 30 wounded.
Other senior Afghan officials put the number of dead between 40 and 48, and the number of wounded at more than 60. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest attack at any Afghan national intelligence target, worse than the killing of 30 people in a 2013 attack on intelligence agency headquarters in Kabul.
The deputy chief of the Wardak provincial council said Monday's attack killed at least 50 intelligence personnel from a newly arrived 150-member unit. Mohammad Sardar Bakhtyari said the suicide car bomber detonated inside the base, and then the intelligence officers who were wounded at the first gate killed the gunmen who arrived after the explosion.
The Taliban immediately took credit for the attack, which a spokesman said had killed 190 people and "destroyed large parts of the base."
Akhtar Mohammad Khan Tahiri, the head of the provincial council in Wardak province, said the target was a training center for pro-government militia members run by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency.
"The explosion was very big," added Sharifullah Hotak, another member of Wardak's provincial council. "It destroyed the building and damaged some houses close to the training center."
Hotak said he saw the bodies of 35 Afghan forces in a hospital and that "many more were killed," accusing the Afghan government of "hiding the accurate casualty figures to prevent a further dip in morale of the Afghan forces."
It was unclear how many of the dead were officers of the Afghan intelligence agency and how many were local militia members they were training. While security officials said the casualties were a mix of both, a statement by the Afghan president's office made no mention of the militia members and said intelligence agency "personnel" had been targeted.
Casualties of Afghan intelligence officers have generally been lower than those of other forces, in part because of their better training and equipment.
Officials also could not agree on how many Taliban gunmen arrived after the blast. Bakhtyari said three gunmen arrived in a white Toyota to target the wounded, while Hotak said four attackers took part in the assault after the bombing.
TALKS TO RESUME
The Taliban spokesman, in an email sent to journalists hours after the attack, said Taliban representatives would resume peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar today, part of a push to reach a settlement to the 17-year insurgent conflict.
Afghan and foreign experts said the suicide attacks are designed to give the insurgents leverage in peace talks in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, and to keep morale high among hard-line Islamist fighters.
In the email Monday, the Taliban spokesman said the ongoing talks would focus on "ending American occupation with assurance that no one will be harmed in Afghanistan."
Although the Taliban's battlefield targets are mostly Afghan security forces, the group's diplomatic target is mainly the United States. The Taliban view the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and have long insisted they will only negotiate directly with Washington.
Despite the cold winter in most parts of the country and U.S. efforts to persuade the Taliban to sit down for talks, violence continues unabated across the country.
On Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber rammed an official convoy in Logar province, which borders greater Kabul.
Shams Larawai, spokesman for the governor of Logar, said the provincial governor had "escaped the attack unharmed," but that eight of his bodyguards -- seven police officers and an intelligence officer -- had been killed. Ten members of the security forces, most of them police officers, had been wounded, Larawai said.
Other recent insurgent attacks have included the kidnapping of a court official in Parwan province and a shooting at a wedding in Helmand province.
For months, officials have reported that the Taliban control record amounts of territory and are killing record numbers of Afghan civilians and troops. But the dual strategy of talking and fighting has also accelerated on the U.S. side.
Over the past weekend, Afghan security officials said more than 60 Taliban members were killed in bombing raids on insurgent hideouts in six provinces.
Afghan officials said recent changes in President Ashraf Ghani's security team were aimed at sending a strong message to the Taliban that the government is equally ready to negotiate or keep fighting.
Ghani said last year that 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed since 2015. On Sunday, in a speech formally launching his re-election campaign, Ghani said his government was determined to bring peace, but "we will not beg for it."
A U.S. military official in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, also said this week that "Afghan and foreign forces are killing record numbers of Taliban."
Although President Donald Trump has said he may withdraw half the 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials here have recently described intensifying their combat involvement in an effort to force the Taliban to reach a settlement.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for facilitating Afghan peace talks, is on the latest of several trips to the region over the past couple of months to build momentum for talks. After visiting Pakistan, where Taliban leaders enjoy sanctuary, Khalilzad struck an optimistic tone.
"We're heading in the right direction with more steps by Pakistan coming that will lead to concrete results," he wrote on his Facebook page Monday.
Information for this article was contributed by Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi of The New York Times; by Pamela Constable, Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.
A Section on 01/22/2019
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