Taliban gunmen and 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.
The attack also slightly injured two U.S. soldiers in an adjacent American installation, Forward Operating Base Walton, a military spokesman said. However, Afghan officials said they believed the police facility was the primary target.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on what it called the "puppet" forces of the Afghan government.
Afghan officials said the onslaught began at midmorning when at least three would-be suicide bombers tried to force their way into the police compound, setting off a firefight. They were shot dead before they could detonate their explosives vests, said Khan Mohammad Mujahid, the Kandahar police chief.
Later, as a crowd of rescuers converged on the area, an ambulance rigged with a bomb exploded in their midst, Mujahid said, killing two police officers, a soldier and three intelligence officers. A dozen police officers were injured, he said.
During the confrontation, an insurgent trying to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the U.S. base's watchtowers was shot and killed, said Lt. Col. Webster Wright, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force at nearby Kandahar airfield.
The city of Kandahar and the surrounding province of the same name were the focus of an American troop buildup last year. Before fighting trailed off late in the year with the onset of winter, Western military officials had boasted significant gains, including the dislodging of insurgents from several key districts ringing Afghanistan's second-largest city.
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 decadelong conflict in the West's favor.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 they have cautioned that Western gains are fragile and reversible.
Thursday's attack came as the NATO force reported that it had killed more than 80 insurgents in more than a week of fighting in Kunar province, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Afghan officials put the figure at 130.
At least six Western military personnel also were 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.
The Western military also said Thursday that in the north of Afghanistan, coalition troops had tracked and killed a member of the Afghan border police who shot dead two U.S. soldiers three days earlier. The shootings took place in Faryab province, a once-calm area where the insurgency has grown in strength.