Death toll in Afghan base attack rises to 140, officials say

MAZAR-I-SHARIF/KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - As many as 140 Afghan soldiers were killed on Friday by Taliban attackers apparently disguised in military uniforms in what would be the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base, officials said.

The Defense Ministry said the toll was "over 100" Afghan soldiers killed and wounded.

One official in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the attack occurred, said on Saturday at least 140 soldiers were killed and many others wounded. Other officials said the toll was likely to be even higher.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the government has yet to release exact casualty figures.

The attack starkly highlighted the struggle by the Afghan government and its international backers to defeat a potent Taliban insurgency that has gripped Afghanistan for more than a decade.

A U.S. official in Washington on Friday had put the toll at more than 50 killed and wounded.

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Taliban attack on military base in Afghanistan
Afghan national Army (ANA) troops keep watch near the site of an ongoing attack on an army headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Anil Usyan
An Afghan national Army (ANA) soldier receives treatment at a hospital a day after a attack on an army headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif northern Afghanistan April 22, 2017. REUTERS/Anil Usyan TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Afghan national Army (ANA) troops arrive near the site of an ongoing attack on an army headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif northern Afghanistan April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Anil Usyan
A wounded Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier lies on a bed in the ward of a hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif on April 22, 2017, as he receives treatment following an attack that targeted an army compound in the northern Afghan province of Balkh. More than 100 Afghan soldiers have been killed and wounded in a coordinated Taliban attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan, the country's defence ministry said. 'The majority of our soldiers were offering Friday prayers' at the time of the assault, the ministry said in a statement, adding that 'over 100 Afghan army forces were martyred and wounded'. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
BALKH, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 22: Ambulances carry people, who got wounded on Taliban fighters' attack to the 209th Corps, to hospitals in Balkh province, Afghanistan on April 22, 2017. (Photo by Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A wounded Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier lies on a bed in the ward of a hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif on April 22, 2017, as he receives treatment following an attack that targeted an army compound in the northern Afghan province of Balkh. More than 100 Afghan soldiers have been killed and wounded in a coordinated Taliban attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan, the country's defence ministry said. 'The majority of our soldiers were offering Friday prayers' at the time of the assault, the ministry said in a statement, adding that 'over 100 Afghan army forces were martyred and wounded'. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on April 21, 2017, an Afghan security official stands alert near the site of attack on an army compound in Dihdadi District of Balkh province . More than 100 Afghan soldiers have been killed and wounded in a coordinated Taliban attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan, the country's defence ministry said. 'The majority of our soldiers were offering Friday prayers' at the time of the assault, the ministry said in a statement, adding that 'over 100 Afghan army forces were martyred and wounded'. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on April 21, 2017, Afghan security personnel stand guard near the site of attack on an army compound in Dihdadi District of Balkh province . More than 100 Afghan soldiers have been killed and wounded in a coordinated Taliban attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan, the country's defence ministry said. 'The majority of our soldiers were offering Friday prayers' at the time of the assault, the ministry said in a statement, adding that 'over 100 Afghan army forces were martyred and wounded'. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security personnel keep watch near the site of an ongoing attack on an army compound in Dihdadi District of Balkh province on April 21, 2017. At least eight Afghan soldiers have been killed and 11 wounded during an ongoing Taliban attack on their base in northern Afghanistan, the defence ministry said.�'Gunmen wearing Afghan army uniforms have launched a complex attack on an army compound in the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif',capital of Balkh province, ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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As many as 10 Taliban fighters, dressed in Afghan army uniforms and driving military vehicles, made their way onto the base and opened fire on mostly unarmed soldiers eating a meal and leaving a mosque after Friday prayers, according to officials.

The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, and several detonated suicide vests packed with explosive, they said.

Witnesses described a scene of confusion as soldiers were uncertain who the attackers were.

"It was a chaotic scene and I didn't know what to do," said one army officer wounded in the attack. "There was gunfire and explosions everywhere."

The base is the headquarters for the Afghan National Army's 209th Corps, responsible for much of northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz province where there has been heavy fighting.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement on Saturday the attack was retribution for the recent killing of several senior Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan.

Four of the attackers were Taliban sympathizers who had infiltrated the army and served for some time, Mujahid said.

That claim has not been confirmed by the Afghan army.

The NATO-led military coalition deploys advisers to the base where the attack occurred to train and assist the Afghan forces but coalition officials said no international troops were involved in the attack.

"The attack on the 209th Corps today shows the barbaric nature of the Taliban," the commander of coalition forces, U.S. General John Nicholson, said in a statement on Friday.

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