At least 12 people, and possibly many more, were killed Monday in a Taliban-claimed attack on a military compound in central Afghanistan, officials said, as the insurgents continue to batter the war-torn country's beleaguered security forces even as they engage with U.S. officials in a nascent peace process.
The attack began after a vehicle loaded with explosives rammed into the entrance of a compound in Maidan Shahr -- the capital of Wardak province that lies about 30 miles south of the capital Kabul.
At least three gunmen stormed the base following the explosion, igniting a firefight with Afghan security forces. All three gunmen were later killed in the exchange, according to a provincial official.
"The Taliban used a Humvee vehicle to hit the compound," Akhtar Mohammad Taheri -- the head of Wardak provincial council -- told AFP. The Reuters news agency said local officials had put the death toll at 126, most of the victims being members of the Afghan security forces, but that devastating toll was not immediately confirmed by Afghan officials speaking on the record.
The Taliban -- who have been waging a 17-year war against the Western-backed Afghan government -- later claimed responsibility for the assault. The attack came a day after a Taliban suicide bomber targeted the convoy of Logar province's governor, killing at least seven security guards.
Fights between security forces and Taliban fighters haveduring the frigid Afghan winter, which traditionally experiences a lull in fighting.
The recent Taliban attacks come as Washington is stepping up efforts for a peace deal that could pave the way for the Taliban's participation in the next government, with the U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visiting regional powers this month after meeting Taliban representatives in December.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on Monday that talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials had resumed in Qatar. A source close to the talks told the news agency that Taliban officials met with Khalilzad in Doha, adding: "They will hopefully finalize a timeline and mechanism of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan."
Khalilzad ended his visit to neighbouring Pakistan Sunday after meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last week to discuss ongoing peace efforts.
The Afghan government has played a very minor role in the dialogue between the U.S. and the Taliban, which views the administration in Kabul as a puppet regime of the U.S. an insists on direct negotiations only with the latter.