Afghanistan is observing a national day of mourning on Sunday after scores of soldiers were killed by Taliban fighters disguised as fellow troops in the deadliest attack of its kind on an Afghan military base.
Afghan officials said the death toll jumped to 140 following Friday’s assault on the army headquarters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Another 160 people were wounded in the attack, Mohammad Ibrahim Khair Andesh, head of the provincial council, announced.
The attack starkly highlighted the difficulty of the long struggle by the Afghan government and its international backers to defeat the Taliban insurgency.
After arriving in Mazar-i-Sharif to visit the base, President Ashraf Ghani ordered flags be flown at half-mast on Sunday in memory of the troops who died.
Ghani held an emergency meeting with senior security officials and called for a “serious” investigation into the attack.
In a statement online, he condemned the assault as “cowardly” and the work of “infidels”.
As many as 10 Taliban fighters, dressed in Afghan army uniforms and driving military vehicles, made their way on to the base and opened fire on mostly unarmed soldiers eating and leaving a mosque after Friday prayers, according to officials.
They opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, and several detonated suicide vests packed with explosives.
Witnesses described a scene of confusion as soldiers were uncertain about the attackers’ true identity.
“It was a chaotic scene and I didn’t know what to do,” said one army officer wounded in the attack. “There was gunfire and explosions everywhere.”
The base is the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps, responsible for much of northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz, a province that has seen heavy fighting.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said the base was supposedly “the most heavily defended camp in all of northern Afghanistan”.
“The attackers managed to get through three different checkpoints, and they seem to have also had passes for their vehicle and personal identity cards … which raises all sorts of concerns.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Saturday the attack on the base was retribution for the recent killing of several senior Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan.
The US military command in Kabul said an American air strike had killed a commander, Quari Tayib, and eight other Taliban on April 17.
Mujahid said the attack on the base killed as many as 500 soldiers, including senior commanders.
Four of the attackers were Taliban sympathisers who had infiltrated the army and served for some time, Mujahid said.
The Afghan army did not respond to his comments.
The NATO-led military coalition deploys advisers to the base to train and assist Afghan forces, but coalition officials said no foreign troops had been hurt.
“The attack on the 209th Corps today shows the barbaric nature of the Taliban,” the commander of coalition forces, US General John Nicholson, said in a statement on Friday.
German forces have long led the international mission in northern Afghanistan.
In Berlin, military officials said the work of the mission on the base would be on hold for one or two days while the Afghan army investigated the attack, but it would resume.
“The situation shows that we cannot stop supporting, training and advising our Afghan partners,” a German Operations Command spokesman said.