Kandahar - Afghan forces battled Wednesday to flush out Taliban militants hours after they stormed Kandahar airport, killing at least nine people and taking families hostage as President Ashraf Ghani sought to revive peace talks at a regional conference.
Local residents said they had heard soldiers pleading with the insurgents to free women and children, who were screaming during the fighting which erupted shortly after sundown in the southern city on Tuesday.
One security official told AFP that insurgents were holding some civilians as "human shields", which was complicating their clearance operation.
The brazen raid on the sprawling compound, which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base, is the second major Taliban assault in as many days in the city recognised as the birthplace of the Taliban.
The militants managed to breach the first gate of the high-security complex and took up position in an old school building, engaging security forces in pitched firefights.
The government claimed on Wednesday morning that an unknown number of assailants had been killed but residents were still reporting a volley of gunshots and explosions.
"Since last night my family is trapped inside the complex, unable to leave because of the intense fighting," 40-year-old airport worker Haji Abdul Qader told AFP, adding that he was in contact with them by telephone.
"They have barricaded themselves inside a house."
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Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, told AFP that nine people, including civilians and soldiers, had been killed.
Dawood Shah Wafadar, a military commander in Kandahar, gave a higher death toll of 18.
"The fighting started around 6:00 pm (Tuesday) and intensified over the night," 30-year-old university student Izatullah, who lives inside the complex, told AFP.
"Soldiers were calling on Taliban attackers to let women and children go but attackers declined. We could hear children screaming during the fighting."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying on Twitter that "150 Afghan and foreign soldiers" had been killed in the fierce fighting.
The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
The raid coincides with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's high-profile visit to Islamabad on Wednesday for the Heart of Asia conference aimed at promoting regional ties.
Ghani's willingness to visit longtime nemesis Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Taliban, has signalled a renewed push to mend badly frayed cross-border ties which in turn could help jumpstart peace talks with the insurgents.
The raid also comes after days of fevered speculation about the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour following reports that he was critically wounded in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan.
- 'Familiar pattern' -
"It has become a familiar pattern. Whenever there is talk about peace talks, the Taliban launch big attacks," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
"It shows that either they want to scuttle efforts towards talks or want big concessions before they reach the negotiating table."
Pakistan, which has historically supported the Afghan Taliban, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.
But the talks soon stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar, sparking a power struggle within the movement that lead to the creation of a rival faction last month.
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The leadership of the insurgent group is once again in question, after days of frantic conjecture about the fate of Mansour.
The Taliban released an audio message Saturday purportedly from Mansour, vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as "enemy propaganda".
The Islamists' denials have fallen on sceptical ears, however, especially after they kept Mullah Omar's death secret for two years, with multiple insurgent sources casting doubt on the authenticity of the message.
Ghani also said Monday that there was no evidence to prove that Mansour was dead.
Rumours of his demise could potentially intensify the simmering rifts within the insurgent movement.
The Taliban has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency.
The insurgents have been ramping up attacks on government and foreign targets despite the onset of the harsh winter season when the fighting usually winds down.