KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghanistan was reeling on Tuesday from a brazen Taliban assault on a military base in the country's east the previous day that killed at least 45 people and wounded as many as 70, most of them military personnel, according to provincial officials.
There were fears, however, that the death toll from the daytime assault on the base, which also serves as a training center for a pro-government militia and is run by the country's intelligence service, was even higher.
The attack began when a suicide bomber drove a Humvee into the base in eastern Maidan Wardak province and detonated his load as he rammed the vehicle into the main building there, according to Khawanin Sultani, a council member.
The building collapsed from the explosion, which likely contributed to the high casualty numbers.
The Taliban, who promptly claimed responsibility in a statement to the media just hours after the attack, later said in a separate statement that they had met again on Monday with U.S. representatives to discuss "ending the invasion of Afghanistan" in talks that would continue on Tuesday. They are meeting in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office.
The simultaneousness of the events - the deadly attack, one of the worst Taliban assaults on Afghan forces in recent years - and the Qatar meeting that was meant to pave way for talks aimed at resolving Afghanistan's 17-year war, underscored the audacity of the insurgents in the face of stepped-up U.S. peace efforts.
The Taliban, who now hold sway in almost half of Afghanistan, carry out attacks on a daily basis, mainly targeting the country's beleaguered security forces.
The base that was hit is located on the outskirts of Maidan Shar, the provincial capital, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kabul. Sultani said that after the Taliban bombing, four other attackers engaged in a shootout with Afghan troops and that all the attackers were killed.
"The main building inside the base collapsed and most of the bodies were under the destroyed building," he said.
Sultani said there were about 150 military personnel and others at the base at the time. The pro-government militia that was hit had been responsible for and highly effective in securing the province, especially two important highways linking Kabul with the provinces of Kandahar, Maidan Wardak and Bamyan.
"They had participated in so many operations alongside other security forces and had fought against insurgents," Sultani added, speaking about the militia.
A provincial security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told the AP that he personally counted as many as 75 dead bodies at the base. There was no official confirmation of a higher toll.
Dozens of ambulances took the wounded to the main provincial hospital as well as to Kabul for further treatment, the official said, adding that there were fears the death toll would keep rising. The blast was so strong that windows of civilian homes seen in the distance from the base were also shattered, he said.
A short statement from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office strongly condemned Monday's attack, saying the "enemy had carried out a terrorist attack against the intelligence agency's personnel, killed and wounded a number of honest sons of this homeland who were defending their country and protecting their people." Ghani also ordered an investigation, the statement added.
It was not known how many of the dead were members of the militia in training and how many were military and intelligence officers and instructors.
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a former deputy interior minister and a military analyst, said the attack was a "tragedy and a big loss to the Afghan security forces."
Yarmand said it was difficult to believe that the country's vaunted security agency - the best equipped and best trained - could have lost such a high number of personnel in a single attack and that there must have been serious negligence on someone's part.
The bomber in the Humvee that attacked the base apparently managed to get through what should have been the first barrier without being stopped and reached the main building, he said. The suicide bomber sped through the entrance gate and penetrated into the base despite being fired upon by security forces from a Humvee guarding the entrance, he added.
Yarmand also complained that there were no other checkpoints along the highway and leading up to the base, any one of which could have stopped the vehicle and prevented the bombing.
The Taliban statement on Monday said they had met with U.S. representatives to discuss "ending the invasion of Afghanistan" in talks that would continue on Tuesday in Qatar.
"Peace talks and negotiations are important and essential for Afghanistan, but not under these unacceptable circumstances," Yarmand said. "If such attacks continue, there must be a cease-fire agreement first."
Last week, the Taliban threatened to walk away from the talks, accusing Washington of seeking to "expand the agenda" - presumably a reference to American demands that the insurgents hold direct talks with the Kabul government.
The Taliban view the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and have long insisted they will only negotiate directly with Washington.
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