KABUL, Afghanistan — A squad of nine suicide bombers attacked a major U.S.-Afghan air base in the eastern city of Jalalabad just after dawn Sunday, exploding bombs at the front gate and sparking a lengthy firefight with both Afghan and NATO forces inside.
Officials said the attackers killed at least five people before being either shot or blown up by their own explosives. As the battle raged, American assault helicopters fired from overhead. Three Afghan security force members and two civilians died, officials said.
An American spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said three foreign troops were wounded.
The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which was reminiscent of a frontal assault on the base last February, when a suicide bombing left nine Afghans dead. The base, located at a former commercial and military airfield, is a major transport center for the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan.
One Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said in a message that “a number of our devotees” attacked the base and “brought heavy casualties to the enemy.”
A second spokesman, Abdul Balkhi, sent out a series of tweets Sunday that described the attack in great detail. He said two different groups of Taliban had staged it, including six who were wearing U.S. military uniforms and who drove onto the base in a vehicle that they then detonated.
Balkhi said a second group had shot a number of foreign troops in a two-hour fight before being “rewarded with martyrdom.” He said that two “enemy aircraft” had been destroyed and that much of the base had been “engulfed in flames.”
This triumphant version of events was partially contradicted by a series of competing tweets and e-mails from ISAF spokesmen, who portrayed the assault as far less successful.
Lt. Col. Hagen Messner confirmed that the airfield had been attacked at 6 a.m, but he stated that “no insurgents breached the perimeter.” Messner also confirmed that U.S. helicopters were deployed to defend the base, which ISAF officials said was secured soon after the firefight ended.
An official communique from the provincial governor’s office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, said two suicide vehicles had attacked the front gate of the base, followed by three suicide bombers who tried to detonate their explosives but were shot dead by ISAF and Afghan forces.
The governor’s office said a total of nine attackers, three Afghan security force members and two civilians died. A spokesman for the provincial police chief said the dead civilians were two Afghan medical students and three Afghans working at the base.
The spokesman said two trucks full of explosives rammed the front gate of the base, where one exploded. He said Afghan guards started firing on the second one and it also exploded.
Although Taliban attacks have lessened with the onset of winter here, the insurgents have now staged three bold suicide attacks in the past month.
In Kabul, two suicide attackers on foot penetrated a high-security area and blew themselves up near a military checkpoint, also killing two Afghan guards. In nearby Wardak province, a suicide truck bomber exploded in the small capital town, killing three people, wounding more than 100 and damaging hundreds of buildings.