Kabul: At least 37 people, including children, were killed in a Taliban attack on a heavily fortified civilian and military airfield in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
BBC quoted Afghan defense ministry while confirming the casualties here on Wednesday, At least nine militants were also killed, the minister added.
A number of hostages were seized in the 26-hour attack before Afghan forces retook the airport.
Final “mopping up operations” was under way, military officials said.
The Taliban said a number of suicide fighters managed to enter the base with weapons. They said “martyrdom seekers” launched “thunderous attacks on foreign and hireling personnel”.
The defense ministry statement said that a total of 11 insurgents took part in the attack. At least nine were killed and another was injured. Reports said the final gunman held out on his own for several hours before being killed late Wednesday.
At least 37 people were injured in the attack, the defense ministry said.
The raid was the latest in a series of battlefield victories by the Taliban, who briefly seized the northern city of Kunduz in September.
The airport compound houses Afghan military and civilian sections as well as a NATO base.
Officials said the attackers initially managed to breach the first gate of the complex.
Kandahar army commander Sher Shah told reporters that radio intercepts had found that some militants were speaking in Urdu – a language more commonly used in neighboring Pakistan.
Afghan officials frequently blame Pakistan for unrest.
The statement by the Taliban claimed that they killed up to 80 soldiers. However, this figure could not be verified.
The latest violence came as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called for help to defeat terrorism, at a regional conference in Pakistan.
Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, speaking at the conference, called on Pakistan to help restart stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.
But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.
The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.
Hope and music
Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.
The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.
Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.
Advances for women
Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.
“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.
But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.
“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.
Ethnic groups help each other
Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.
“It’s hope for the future,” he said.
Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.
“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.
Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.
“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.
The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.
The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)