ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Afghanistan say they have killed a group of heavily armed Taliban insurgents who took part in a Thursday assault on Kabul International Airport.
The pre-dawn raid temporarily shut down the airport, which also serves as a major operational base for NATO-led military coalition.
The assault, which coincided the first day of a runoff election recount, triggered an intense gunfight with Afghan security forces that lasted several hours. Afghan officials say the militants, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, fired rockets from the roof of a nearby partially-constructed building.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi says all five militants were killed without police or civilian casualties and the airport was later reopened for normal flight operations.
"They detonated an explosives-packed vehicle before occupying the roof of the building in Qasaba residential area just north of the Kabul airport," Sediqqi said, adding that the attackers were speaking Urdu, the official language in neighboring Pakistan.
Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Zahir said the airport was undamaged, and one police officer suffered minor injuries.
"The attack started with rocket firing from these buildings towards the airport," said Kabul resident Jahangar Khan, who was near the airport at the time of the attack. "Foreign and Afghan forces started firing from their towers, also a car on the road caught fire and exploded. It seems that there are fighters and they are positioned in the first block."
Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by a group of suicide bombers. The Taliban's claim of responsibility appears to contradict comments made by Sediqqi, who accused the Pakistan's ISI spy agency of facilitating insurgent groups to carry out the airport attack, saying it was the third such raid in more than two months.
Meanwhile, Afghan election authorities began recounting more than eight million votes from the disputed second round of the presidential election.
Independent Election Commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani said the United Nations-supervised audit process will take “three or four weeks." He hoped both the candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdulla, will accept its outcome.
"The Commission has decided to form 100 teams to conduct the full audit and they will work in two shifts in view of the fasting month of Ramadan," Nuristani said, adding that only 30 teams were able to begin the vote scrutiny because some international observers have yet to arrive in Kabul.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has welcomed the start of what it described an "unprecedented" vote audit.
The exercise follows last week’s agreement between the two presidential candidates, mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on the full audit of the June 14 runoff results. Abdullah and Ghani have committed to accept the outcome of the recount.
The audit is being conducted in the presence of candidates’ agents, the media, and international and domestic observers.
Ghani is well ahead in the controversial initial results the commission announced earlier this month but Abdullah rejected them alleging his rival’s lead was due to what he called “industrial scale fraud.”
A peaceful transfer of power is seen crucial ahead of the planned departure of most foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. But security will remain a major challenge for the new Afghan leader, as it has for the outgoing President Hamid Karzai.
Elsewhere, Afghan media reported Taliban insurgents ambushed Karzai’s security team while it was traveling to the eastern Paktika province, site of a massive car bombing earlier this week that killed more than 40 people.
The president plans to visit families of those killed in the marketplace suicide blast to offer condolence. His security team was making arrangements for his arrival when the ambush, which reportedly wounded at least one member of the Presidential Protection Service, took place.
Some information for this report comes from AP, AFP and Reuters.