Kabul - The bodies of 21 Afghan soldiers killed in the worst Taliban attack on the national army in four years have been returned to their families following a rare public ceremony.
The soldiers were honoured in Kabul on Monday by officials including including General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, the defence minister, and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a leading presidential candidate.
The soldiers were killed in an early-morning raid on an army outpost in Kunar province on Sunday. At least 100 Taliban fighters stormed the base, allegedly with the help of infiltrators, as many of the soldiers were sleeping.
Among the dead was Mohammad Akbar, 25, who had been stationed in the eastern province since enlisting in the Afghan army four years ago.
"He was a poor man, he wanted to provide for his family," his uncle, Abdul Amin, told Al Jazeera.
"Of course he wanted to serve his country but he also joined out of necessity."
Abdul Amin said the realities of family life made the $165 monthly salary difficult for his nephew to pass up, though he often complained of violence at the base a few kilometres outside Asadabad, the capital of Kunar.
The army remains one of the few employers hiring in Afghanistan, which has high levels of poverty where a third of the population is unemployed.
Shokib, a soldier from the northern province of Takhar, attended the ceremony to claim the body of Mohammad Khan, a neighbour and relative of his father.
He said the ceremony was a model of the kind of support and unity that led him to enlist.
"Many people in my family were against it, but there was no way I would accept their objections", he said.
Shokib said while he was grateful that the officials attended, their efforts should not end once the flag-draped coffins were delivered to their families.
"They should not let these young men die in vain," he said.
The president, Hamid Karzai, did not attend the ceremony.
Insider attack claims
A statement issued by the Defence Ministry referred to Sunday's attackers - including a suicide bomber - as "insider and outsider terrorists".
Karzai's office also suggested neighbouring Pakistan could have been involved in harbouring and training fighters in the armed opposition.
In a statement, Karzai demanded "Pakistan seriously and strongly co-operate with the government of Afghanistan, and take serious action in eliminating terror nests".
Meanwhile, Karzai's office also disputed as "baseless" online reports that the president had issued an order against NATO forces providing air support during the attack, or in any circumstances.
"The president made it very clear that air assistance should not be called in residential areas, on homes and villages, but he never said ‘under no circumstances’ as the media is reporting," said spokesman Aimal Faizi.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it had received a request for air support, but the fighting was over before the aircraft arrived at the scene.
Karzai's office also took issue with reports from provincial officials that the soldiers had run out of ammunition.