Afghan forces have repulsed an assault by hundreds of fighters, many from across the border in Pakistan, in the biggest clash since the presidential election about four weeks ago.
NATO air support was called in on Wednesday to help beat back the attack that left 60 fighters and at least five Afghan soldiers dead at an army base near the porous border on Monday night.
“A group of terrorists and foreign fighters numbering about 500 launched a big operation targeting army posts in Zirok district of Paktika province,” the Afghan defence ministry said in a statement, according to the AFP news agency.
Haqqani and foreign fighters along with suicide attackers carried out an assault on the night of April 28 to capture a military base in Zirok district
It said the fighters were trying to score a high-profile victory after failing to mount a significant attack on polling day despite threatening to target voters, election officials and security forces.
The Afghan National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence agency, said 300 fighters from the Haqqani network, which is allied to the Taliban, and other fighters were involved.
“Haqqani and foreign fighters along with suicide attackers carried out an assault on the night of April 28 to capture a military base in Zirok district,” it said.
“As a result of a counterattack by government forces backed by [the] coalition air force, 60 members of Haqqani and other foreign fighters were killed and a large number injured.”
The Haqqani network is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, including bombings of the US and Indian embassies in Kabul.
A Haqqani source in Pakistan confirmed Monday’s incident to AFP.
“Allied forces and the Afghan army retaliated to the assault and killed 60 fighters,” he said.
“The fighters left and took with them 40 bodies of their colleagues and 12 Afghan soldiers who were alive.”
The Haqqani source said the bodies of 20 fighters were with the Afghans and a message had been sent offering to exchange the captured soldiers for them.
Afghan officials said only one soldier had been taken hostage.
US officials have in the past accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of links to the Haqqani network, which has bases in Pakistan’s tribal districts.
Washington put the network on its terror blacklist in September 2012, and the Pentagon said the group represented a “significant threat” to national security.
Afghanistan’s election is heading for a run-off on June 7 after former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani failed to secure the 50 percent vote needed for first-round victory.
A second election in June – at the height of the traditional “fighting season” – will present another major challenge for Afghanistan’s stretched security forces.