Taliban attack on base in Afghan west kills 44

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- In one of the most deadly insurgent attacks in the decade-long war in Afghanistan, nine Taliban fighters dressed as Afghan soldiers stormed a government compound in the western part of the country Wednesday morning, leaving at least 44 people dead and wounding more than 100 in a hostage standoff.

The complex assault began around 8:45 a.m., when two suicide attackers detonated explosives packed into an army truck at the entrance gate of the provincial government compound in Farah, according to police officials. After the explosion, which ripped through the mayor's office and neighboring buildings, insurgents rushed the packed provincial courthouse, taking civilians and a handful of employees hostage.

Afghan security forces surrounded the building, firing at the Taliban fighters tucked away on the second floor. At some point during the nearly seven-hour gunfight, the insurgents took the hostages downstairs to the basement and shot them, police said.

By 4 p.m., the fight was over, leaving behind a scene of carnage and destruction. The death toll: 34 civilians, 10 Afghan security forces and all nine insurgents, Farah police said. More than 100 people, mostly civilians, suffered wounds.

The attack highlighted the deteriorating security situation in Farah, a restive province that borders Iran to the west. The last major assault in the province occurred in May, when four insurgents dressed as police officers staged an attack on the governor's compound, killing at least 11 people and wounding a dozen others. But violent attacks in general have been on the rise recently in the province.

Officials from Farah said the province has become a hotbed for the insurgency and drug traffickers, as the government focuses its resources on more violent areas of the country. Humaira Ayobi, a member of the Parliament representing Farah, said a recent effort by police to stem the drug trade may have contributed to the violence Wednesday. Last month, five police officers were killed in the province while conducting a poppy eradication campaign.

As warm weather spreads throughout Afghanistan, a period referred to as the fighting season, Taliban violence is expected to increase.

"Farah is bleeding and crying today," said Mr. Ayobi. "The province will mourn for weeks."

On the street where the attack occurred Wednesday, witnesses described a nightmarish scene, with bodies splayed all over. Ambulances carted charred bodies from the buildings, including the offices of the mayor, prosecutor and the governor.

"When I reached the street, I saw that all shops and houses around the courthouse were destroyed," said Jalil Khan, 47, a civil servant at the customs office. "I saw men, women and some children lying on the ground, bleeding or burned. Some of them didn't know where they were or what had happened to them."

Shujauddin, 22, a teacher in the city of Farah, said he was in the courthouse to address a land dispute when the first explosion struck the government compound. When Mr. Shujauddin, who uses one name, tried to escape, he was shot in the arm twice and caught a third bullet in the leg. He woke up hours later in the hospital, he said.

The Farah province attack coincided with the highly anticipated homecoming of Afghanistan's powerful intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid, seriously wounded in a December suicide attack. After multiple surgeries in the United States, he returned Wednesday morning to Kabul.

Mr. Khalid's return, heralded by "Welcome" banners strung from traffic posts across Kabul, is seen by many as a symbolic victory for the Afghan government. At the time of the attack, when an insurgent detonated a hidden bomb at a National Directorate of Security guesthouse, Mr. Khalid's very survival was in question. But for months, the government promised that he would again take the intelligence agency helm.

Mr. Khalid, a former governor of the Kandahar and Ghazni provinces and close associate of President Hamid Karzai, has presided over a fierce crackdown on the Taliban during his tenure as chief of the National Directorate of Security. He is also seen as a relentless detractor of Pakistan. His efforts have won him both praise and criticism from Western officials.

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