Wounded Afghan soldiers describe Taliban mowing down all in their path
Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan // The death toll from the Taliban’s deadliest attack on an Afghan army base rose to more than 150 on Saturday as soldiers described the horrifying moments suicide attackers launched their raid.
At least 10 militants disguised in army uniforms inside two military trucks breached checkpoints to enter the military headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Using grenades, explosive vests and heavy machineguns mounted on the trucks, the attackers mowed down dozens of Afghan soldiers at a time.
“The soldiers were dropping like sparrows hit by a shotgun,” said Zabihullah, a soldier recovering in hospital after he was wounded by an explosion.
Mohammad Hussain, an officer also wounded in the attack, said: “They opened fire on everyone. And then they entered the mosque and dining room, killing everyone indiscriminately.”
The attack is one of the heaviest blows dealt to the country’s struggling security forces since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
The army is preparing for what is expected to be a year of ruthless fighting against the Taliban and other smaller militant groups such as ISIL.
The base is the headquarters for the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps and also hosts foreign troops from the Nato-led mission to advise and train Afghan forces.
No international troops were caught up in the attack, coalition officials said.
The incident raised immediate questions over how such a mass killing could occur in a heavily defended headquarters.
Afghan officials and officers said the attackers must have had help from inside the base, which houses thousands of soldiers, for them to breach the checkpoints.
“Without the direct and strong help from inside the Corps it is impossible to do such an attack,” said Mohammad Momand, a Balkh province councillor. “They knew very well the building and knew very well where the main troops were.”
The attack started early on Friday afternoon when the two trucks approached the base’s gate, claiming to have wounded soldiers in need of urgent medical care.
Two guards at the first checkpoint waved them through, said Ahmad Saboor, a soldier who was on guard duty further inside.
At the second checkpoint, the guards told the men in the trucks they had to leave their weapons behind, as is standard procedure at the bases.
After a brief argument, the attackers shot and killed the two guards and sped toward the third and final checkpoint, which they hit with a rocket-propelled grenade before racing into the base.
“The first vehicle started firing at dozens of soldiers and officers coming out of the mosque,” Mr Saboor said. “The second vehicle went towards the dining hall and started shooting.”
Using machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, the attackers sprayed heavy fire into groups of soldiers gathered to eat in a dining hall and leaving afternoon prayers at the mosque.
Several other attackers detonated suicide vests.
“I had just finished my prayers and was outside the mosque when an army pickup sped towards us,” said another wounded officer.
“I stood still and did not know whether to run or stay, then a gunman from the back of the truck opened fire with a machinegun and hit the side of my abdomen and my left leg.”
Other unarmed soldiers were dropping dead and wounded around him.
“One of the attackers blew himself up and others went and took up positions in a small room next to the mosque,” he said.
The confusion in the base was compounded by the fact that the attackers wore army uniforms.
“At first there was a call on the radio not to shoot because they thought it could have been a misunderstanding,” said Mr Saboor, who reported that some base officials initially thought it might have been a disagreement between soldiers.
Afghan commandos from elsewhere on the base arrived and eventually killed or captured all of the attackers, Zabihullah said.
A Taliban spokesman said at least four of the attackers were longtime members of the army who worked with the insurgent group.
Afghan officials are investigating that claim, but Zabihullah said he had no doubt that the gunmen had inside help.
“Security is so tight that even soldiers without IDs are not allowed to get in,” he said.
The Afghan defence ministry said the death toll was more than 100 but expected it to change and that an investigation was under way.
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani flew to Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday to pay a “courtesy visit” to wounded soldiers, his office said, while Gen John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, praised Afghan commandos for bringing the “atrocity to an end”.
Security forces, beset by killings and desertions, have been struggling to beat back insurgents since US-led Nato troops ended their combat mission in December 2014.
According to a US watchdog, casualties among Afghan security forces soared by 35 per cent last year, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed.
Early last month, gunmen disguised as doctors stormed the country’s largest military hospital in Kabul, killing dozens.
That attack came a week after 16 people were killed in simultaneous Taliban suicide assaults on two security compounds in the capital.
Retired Afghan Gen Atiqullah Amerkhel said the raid on Friday would further erode trust between Afghan soldiers and damage morale.
“Now they don’t know that my fellow soldier is friend or enemy, Gen Amerkhel said. “They can’t trust anyone inside the Corps or outside.
“When they hear or see that this many troops were massacred, then how can they think they will succeed on the battleground?”
* With reporting from Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul, Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: April 23, 2017 04:00 AM