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Afghan Army Chief, Defense Min. Resign 04/24 06:09

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's army chief and defense minister 
resigned on Monday, following a Taliban attack over the weekend that struck a 
northern army base, killing more than 100 military and other personnel, 
officials said.

   The attack --- the biggest ever by the Taliban on a military base in 
Afghanistan --- involved multiple gunmen and suicide bombers in army uniforms 
who penetrated the compound of the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army in 
northern Balkh province on Friday, killing and wounding scores.

   The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, which according to some 
estimates killed over 130 people.

   President Ashraf Ghani accepted the resignations of the army chief of staff 
and the country's defense minister, according to a statement from the 
president's office. It was not immediately clear who would replace Defense 
Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim.

   The authorities have not released definitive numbers for the casualty tolls 
but Afzel Hadid, the head of the provincial council in Balkh, told The 
Associated Press that at least 130 people were killed and 80 were wounded.

   A senior American military official in Kabul on Monday gave the latest 
Afghan estimate as standing at 144 Afghan soldiers killed and said it was 
likely to rise further.

   The official said it appears likely the attack was either carried out by or 
planned by a Pakistan-based Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network, which 
is a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization. The official, who spoke 
on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters, added the 
assault likely took four to six months to plan and that it was also likely the 
attackers had help in advance from Afghan troops on the base.

   Also on Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived unannounced in 
Kabul to assess what has become America's longest war as the Trump 
administration weighs sending in more U.S. troops to help the Afghans fight the 
insurgency.

   Ghani traveled to the base in Balkh on Saturday from where he strongly 
condemned the attack, according to a tweet from the official Twitter account of 
the presidential palace. Afghanistan marked a day of national mourning on 
Sunday, with memorial services held at mosques and the Afghan flag flying at 
half-staff on government buildings and offices.

   In the Taliban's detailed statement on the attack, posted on the militant 
group's website, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that four of the 10 
attackers were disguised as soldiers.

   The statement said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of the 
Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz province, Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund, and 
threatened more violence against the army and police, saying "this year's 
operations will be painful."

   The attackers managed to pass through two checkpoints at the base, driving 
in two military vehicles. When security guards stopped them at a third gate, 
the attackers opened fire and two suicide bombers blew themselves up.

   The military's 209th corps is located in the Dihdadi district of Balkh. It 
is one of seven corps of the country's Ministry of Defense, which is 
responsible for providing security for Afghanistan's northern and northeastern 
provinces.

   The attack in Balkh raises serious questions about the Afghan military's 
capability to stand on its own in the battle against the insurgency following 
the withdrawal of foreign combat forces at the end of 2014. The American and 
other foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan are now mostly acting in an 
advisory and training role, with some combat assistance.

   In March, an attack on a military hospital in Kabul killed 50 people. 
Responsibility for that attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, which 
has emerged and gained a foothold in Afghanistan over the past years.


(KA)

 
 
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