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Armed insurgents assaulted a gathering of Afghan religious figures in southern Helmand province on Wednesday, killing seven.
Two gunmen outfitted with assault rifles and hand grenades targeted a group of clerics that had assembled for the weekly meeting of the local Ulemma Council — Afghanistan's highest religious authority — in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, Helmand Deputy Police Chief Pacha Gul Bakhtyar told VICE News.
The Taliban — which has been waging a violent insurgency on the Washington-backed Afghan government since US forces removed it from power in 2001 — claimed responsibility for the attack.
The assault took place in Lashkar Gah's official religious department, which is located close to the city's main mosque and the governor's residence. The council has previously voiced support for local security forces battling hardline Taliban militants, and had gathered to denounce recent violence and the killings of civilians due to suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents.
Police killed one of the gunmen outside of the building, Bakhtyar said, but the other managed to gain entry and fired randomly at people inside before also being shot dead. Four civilians and three officers died in the assault, including senior police commander Col. Gulab Ayoubi. A further five police officers and two civilians were injured in the attack, according to medical sources cited by the Associated Press.
Privately owned local broadcaster 1TV reported that the men had also fired on the nearby local governor's office from the mosque grounds.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousif Ahmadi claimed in a statement that more than 15 members of the security forces had been killed, though the group often inflates the death toll of its strikes.
Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan since most American and allied foreign forces pulled out at the beginning of this year. The Taliban has a strong presence in Helmand and last month announced the start of its annual spring offensive.
Local troops are now responsible for Afghan security, but have been taking heavy casualties while struggling to combat the insurgents. The civilian death toll has also been high: a record 10,000 non-combatants were killed or wounded in 2014, according to the United Nations.
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