KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Taliban militants stormed an Afghan army outpost on Friday, killing more than a dozen soldiers in an area that is a major infiltration route for insurgents crossing the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban are stepping up their attacks this spring, analysts say, as they try to position themselves for power ahead of national elections and the planned withdrawal of most U.S. and other foreign combat troops by the end of 2014. The persistent violence has undermined confidence in the ability of President Hamid Karzai's forces to take over the country's security.
The attack began at dawn in Nari district of Kunar province, a volatile area that serves as a pathway for insurgents traveling to Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in northwestern Pakistan. Hostilities have surged as weather improves, allowing easier movement through the remote area.
The militants started by firing 20 rockets at the outpost, which housed about 30 soldiers, provincial police chief Abdul Habib Sayedkhaili said. He said three Afghan soldiers and four Taliban were killed. But Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told the Associated Press that 13 soldiers were killed in the fighting, which lasted about five hours.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack and said the insurgents captured the base, seizing ammunition and weapons. He said 15 Afghan soldiers died in the attack and the militant fighters suffered no casualties. The Islamic militant movement frequently exaggerates the number of people killed and wounded by its attacks.
This year's fighting season is being closely watched because Afghan forces have to operate with less support from the international military coalition, making it a test case of their ability to operate independently as U.S. and other foreign troops take on more of an advisory and training role.
Afghanistan now has about 100,000 international troops, including 66,000 from the United States. The U.S. troop total is scheduled to drop to about 32,000 by early next year. The bulk of the reduction is to occur after fighting presumably winds down in the winter.
"The Taliban want to show the international community that they are the power in Afghanistan," said Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan political and military analyst. "Relations between the Afghan government and the international community are not so good, which is good for the Taliban."
Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said the coalition had no involvement in Friday's fighting and has little presence in the area where the attack occurred, giving the Afghan National Army more of a leadership role there. "Our coalition footprint has been reduced significantly," he said.
He said the militants attacked several small bases housing Afghan units, but only caused casualties at the one in Nari district. He said 13 Afghan soldiers were killed, but that reinforcements were sent and the Afghan security forces "took the base back fairly quickly and basically pushed the enemy out of the area."
Friday's attack came nearly a week after a fierce battle between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and insurgents elsewhere in Kunar province, one of the most dangerous areas of the country. That led to an airstrike that Afghan officials said killed 11 Afghan children. An American civilian adviser also was killed in the fighting. The international coalition said the investigation into the casualties report from the airstrike was ongoing.
The deaths push the overall Afghan death toll during the first two weeks of April to at least 115 - 63 Afghan civilians and 52 Afghan security forces. That makes it the deadliest month of the year. In 2012, 138 Afghans were killed in all of April, according to an AP tally.
Since the beginning of the month, six U.S. service members and three American civilians also have been killed, including Anne Smedinghoff, 25, a U.S. State Department employee stationed in Kabul. She was the first American diplomatic employee to die on the job since Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans died in an attack on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.
New details have emerged about the April 6 bombing that killed Smedinghoff, three U.S. service members and a civialian employee with the U.S. Defense Department as they were delivering textbooks to school children in Qalat, the capital of the southeastern Zabul.
The group was walking from a military base to a school when the explosion hit, a State Department official familiar with the investigation into the attack said Friday in Washington. Initial reports that members of the group were in vehicles as well as reports they were lost are incorrect, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak to news media and provided the details on condition of anonymity.
The official said on-foot travel for the group was approved because of the short distance - about 100 meters - between the base and the school compound, and was in keeping with past visits to the site, which also houses a Ministry of Agriculture office.
He said the group used the shortest and most direct route from the base, but were told on arrival that the entrance they wanted to use, and had been used previously, no longer provided access to the school.
The group was moving past the military base to another entrance to the compound when the explosion, apparently from a suicide car bomber, occurred. That was followed by a second blast, apparently from a roadside bomb.
The FBI is investigating the incident.