JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Suicide attackers detonated bombs and fired rockets outside a major U.S. base in Afghanistan on Sunday, killing five people in a brazen operation that highlighted the country’s security challenges ahead of the 2014 NATO combat troop pullout.
Local police officials said bodies in Afghan police and military uniforms were scattered around the entrance of the airfield in the eastern city of Jalalabad after a two-hour battle. A Taliban spokesman said the militant group had launched the 6 a.m. assault.
The Taliban, who have been fighting U.S.-led NATO and Afghan forces for more than a decade, sometimes dress in uniforms for attacks.
Two suicide bombers died after blowing themselves up in cars, said Nasir Ahmad Safi, a spokesman for the provincial government.
Seven other bombers were killed in the a gunbattle with Afghan and coalition forces. Three Afghan soldiers and two civilians also died, said Safi.
U.S. helicopters circled overhead.
“There were multiple suicide bombers involved,” said Major Martyn Crighton, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Several coalition troops were wounded, he said.
The United States and Afghan government are scrambling to stabilize Afghanistan before most NATO combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014 and hand over security to Afghan forces.
Some Afghans doubt government security forces will be able to defend the country against any Taliban attempts to seize power again after foreign troops withdraw. There are also growing fears that a civil war will erupt.
President Hamid Karzai’s government say Afghan security forces have made good progress.
Afghanistan’s defense ministry spokesman said there were rocket attacks at the Jalalabad base followed by suicide bombings.
In a text message, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said : “This morning at 6 a.m. a number of our devotees attacked the major U.S. Base in Jalalabad city and so far have brought heavy casualties to the enemy.”
In February, a suicide car bomber killed nine people at the base, almost exclusively used by NATO and the U.S. military.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in KABUL; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski)