Kabul Bank is Afghanistan's top private lender that handles salaries for the Afghan police and armed forces [Reuters]

Gunmen dressed as border police have killed at least 40 people and wounded more than 70 in an attack on a bank in the main city in Afghanistan's east, witnesses and government officials have said.

Al Jazeera has learned that at least seven suicide bombers stormed a branch of the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad city on Saturday and detonated their explosives.

"They shot the bank tellers first. I saw dead and wounded people inside the bank"

Sediqullah Momand,
Afghan witness

Baz Mohammad Sherzad, a senior health official in Nangarhar province, of which Jalalabad is the capital, said nine deaths had been confirmed so far.

Fighting erupted soon after the attack and gunfire could be heard, according to witnesses.

Ahmadzia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the Nangarhar government, said police and civilians were among the casualties. He described the scene as "chaotic".

The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying suicide bombers had entered the bank when Afghan security forces were collecting their salaries.

The motive for the attack was not immediately clear, although co-ordinated assaults by the Taliban against government buildings and military bases have increased in recent years, especially in eastern provinces near the Pakistan border.

Taliban fighters often dress in the uniforms of Afghan security forces, or as women, at the start of such attacks.

It is rare for the Taliban to launch complex attacks with robbery as their primary motive.

Violence across Afghanistan last year reached its worst levels since the Taliban were toppled by US-backed Afghan forces in 2001, with civilian and military casualties at record levels, despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.

Witness accounts

"I was inside the bank when seven gunmen in border police uniform attacked,"  a government employee who identified himself only as Salman and was wounded in the attack, said.

"My brother was killed by them," he said.

Another witness, Sediqullah Momand, said: "They shot the bank tellers first. I saw dead and wounded people inside the bank."

Politically well-connected Kabul Bank is mired in a corruption scandal [AFP]

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, condemned the attack.

Traffic from Jalalabad to the capital, Kabul, was blocked by Afghan police and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, witnesses said.

One man was seen running from the area with his clothes covered in blood.

An ISAF spokesman in Kabul said the coalition was aware of an incident in Jalalabad and was investigating.

The politically well-connected Kabul Bank, Afghanistan's top private lender, is mired in a corruption scandal that could have grave political consequences for Karzai and his government.

The International Monetary Fund has painted a grim picture of the government's handling of the crisis, in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been put at risk through mismanagement, fraud and bad loans, and is considering whether to renew its support for Afghanistan.

Separately, at least 64 people have been killed in joint operations by Afghan forces and NATO-led foreign troops in eastern Kunar province over the past four days.

The provincial governor told Reuters news agency on Sunday that many women and children were also killed.

"They were killed by ground and air strikes in Ghazi Abad district," Fazlullah Wahidi said.. 

He also said that 20 of the dead were women, 29 were children or young adults aged 7 to 20, and the remaining 15 were adult men.

Civilian casualties in NATO-led military operations, often caused by air strikes and night raids, have long been a source
of friction between the Afghan government and its Western partners.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies