Gunmen storm court complex in north Afghanistan

Gunmen storm court complex in north Afghanistan
An Afghan civil order policeman keeps watch at the gate of a provincial governor's office in Jalalabad

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan - Gunmen dressed in military uniforms stormed a court complex in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday, officials said, adding that the assailants were still inside the building.

Loud explosions and gunfire rang out as Afghan security forces retaliated against the assault that comes just before the start of the Taliban's traditional spring offensive.

"Our initial information shows that armed men entered the provincial Appeals Court in Mazar-i-Sharif today," Abdul Raziq Qaderi, acting police chief of Balkh province, told AFP.

"Gunmen exchanged fire with Afghan security forces and the attack is ongoing," he added.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities but at least nine wounded people were brought to the provincial public hospital.

"Most of the nine wounded people... are prosecutors and court staff," Asadullah Sharifi, acting head of the hospital, told AFP.

The attack comes a day after an American soldier was killed in a firefight between US and Afghan troops in eastern Afghanistan, the first apparent insider attack since Washington announced a delay in troop withdrawals from the country.

There was no immediately claim of responsibility for Thursday's assault, which underscores Afghanistan's fragile security situation as US-led foreign troops pull back from the frontlines after a 13-year war against the Taliban.

NATO's combat mission formally ended in December but a small follow-up foreign force has stayed on to train and support the local security forces.

President Barack Obama last month reversed plans to shrink the US force in Afghanistan this year by nearly half, an overture to the country's new reform-minded leader, President Ashraf Ghani.

Hosting Ghani at the White House for their first presidential head-to-head, Obama agreed to keep the current level of 9,800 US troops until the end of 2015.

The Taliban, who have waged a deadly insurgency since they were ousted from power in late 2001, warned that the announcement would damage any prospects of peace talks as they vowed to continue fighting.

Taliban insurgents have already stepped up suicide attacks on government targets following an Afghan army offensive which began in southern Helmand province more than two months ago.

The uptick in attacks has taken a heavy toll on ordinary Afghans.

The number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan jumped 22 per cent in 2014, a recent UN report said, as NATO troops withdrew from combat.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan attributed the rise to an intensification in ground fighting, resulting in a total of 10,548 civilian casualties last year.

Afghan forces are currently bracing for what is expected to be a bloody summer push by the Taliban and the government has also raised the ominous prospect of the Islamic State making inroads into Afghanistan.

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