A squad of Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked a police complex Thursday on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar, killing at least six members of the Afghan security forces and rattling residents of a metropolis whose security has been deemed a top priority by the NATO force.
Heavy explosions rang out as fighting raged for hours in and around the police compound, located on the main highway that connects Kandahar to the city's international airport and the huge NATO base that abuts it.
Echoing a tactic used in a major assault nearly two months ago on police headquarters in Kandahar city, the insurgents used a construction site overlooking the complex as a staging ground for Thursday's attack.
Witnesses said U.S. Black Hawk helicopters circled overhead, and NATO armored vehicles were seen in the area. NATO forces generally respond to such incidents only if Afghan officials request assistance.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on what it called the "puppet" forces of the Afghan government.
Provincial spokesman Zalmay Abubi said the onslaught began at midmorning with an attack by at least three suicide bombers, which triggered a firefight between the attackers and those inside the compound.
The city of Kandahar and the surrounding province of the same name were the focus of a "surge" of American troops last year. Prior to the fighting trailing off with the onset of winter, Western military officials had boasted significant gains including the dislodging of insurgents from several key districts ringing the city, Afghanistan's second-largest.
U.S. officials say establishing security and better governance in Kandahar, which the Taliban movement considers its spiritual home, could turn the momentum of the nearly 10-year conflict in the West's favor.
NATO officials have also said that thousands of pinpoint raids targeting the Taliban's midlevel command tier in recent months have seriously hampered the insurgency's ability to mount its traditional spring offensive, but have cautioned that Western gains are fragile and reversible.
The Afghan forces killed in Thursday's assault included members of the intelligence corps, together with army and police, Afghan officials said without immediately providing a breakdown. The targeted complex houses a recruitment and training center.
Thursday's attack came as NATO's International Security Assistance Force reported it had killed more than 80 insurgents in more than a week of fighting in Kunar province, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Afghan officials put the figure higher, at 130.
At least six Western troops were also killed last week at the onset of the operation, which NATO said was meant to "disrupt insurgent activities in the region." Afghanistan's east is an important staging ground for militants crossing over from bases in Pakistan's tribal areas.