At least 22 military officers and nine Taliban fighters have been killed after an attack on the heavily fortified Kandahar airport compound in southern Afghanistan, officials say.

Taliban forces on Tuesday night attacked buildings housing government employees and military bases at the airport, which is used by Afghan, US and NATO military forces.

Attackers holed up in a building during the assault, took family members of a military officer as hostages.

Military officials said Afghan special forces deployed to the scene were moving slowly to retake the airport as any fast movement could cause civilian casualties during the hostage situation. 

The attack comes as regional leaders are meeting in neighbouring Pakistan to discuss the Afghan conflict.

Afghan forces try to keep Taliban out

Officials told Al Jazeera that the Taliban fighters used AK-47s and wore military uniforms during the attack, which lasted for several hours.

The officials said the homes of Afghan army officials were among those attacked. Nearby businesses were torched. 

A man who was trapped in a building near the airport told Al Jazeera that residents were told to remain inside and take cover, in case Afghan or US-NATO forces mistook them for Taliban fighters.

The incident was the second major Taliban attack in Kandahar in the past 24 hours.

Al Jazeera's Qais Azimy, in Kabul, said that there will be questions asked as to how the Taliban fighters were able to gain access to one of the most heavily fortified military compounds in the country.

On Monday night, Taliban forces stormed a Kandahar police station and engaged in a lengthy firefight in which three police officers and two of the attackers were killed, he said.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Peace conference

As the airport assault was still ongoing, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani landed in Islamabad for the "Heart of Asia" regional conference that aims to revive peace talks with the Taliban.

The meeting, an annual gathering of Asian and other countries, comes months after the first, inconclusive talks between the Afghan government and the group.

"The vision of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan which is in the best interest of the region is far from becoming a reality unless we put an end to financial, logistical and ideological support enjoyed by militants in our region," Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hikmat Khalil Karzai told the conference.

Pakistani authorities hosted peace talks in early July. But the second round of talks were indefinitely postponed following news of the death of Mullah Omar, the group's leader.

In an audio message released last week, purportedly by Omar's successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Mansoor said that the Taliban "won't agree to have peace talks if our demands are not met".

The message also dismissed reports that Mansoor was injured in a gunfight during a gathering of several Taliban figures in Pakistan as "propaganda" aimed at dividing the group. 

Last month, a breakaway faction of the Taliban elected its own leader, Mullah Mohammed Rasool Akhund, sparking speculation over the unity of the group.

The spokesperson of the breakaway faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, expressed interest in peace talks last month.

Violent clashes between the two rival Taliban groups erupted in southern Afghanistan early last month leaving several dead from both sides and confirming the rift.

 

Source: Al Jazeera