KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants breached the perimeter of a huge former U.S. and British base handed over to the Afghan army last month and were fighting soldiers there on Saturday, officials said.
The attack highlights the challenges facing Afghan security forces as foreign troops draw down to a small support mission and the emboldened Taliban launch more attacks.
The militants and army forces were exchanging sporadic gunfire on Saturday morning at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand as fighting entered a third day, said Gen. Ayatullah Khan, commander of the army regiment in the area.
A few dozen Taliban fighters with automatic weapons and suicide vests attacked the base on Thursday, Khan said.
"Some managed to get inside, took position, and started the gunfight," Khan said, adding that the insurgents appeared to be holed up at an inner facility called Camp Boston.
At least five Afghan soldiers were killed in fighting on Friday, said Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand's governor.
He said 26 of the insurgents were killed on Friday, but a few fighters remained.
"Today, they are fighting from a different direction, which shows more fighters are inside the base," Zwak said on Saturday.
Camp Bastion was handed over to the Afghan military as part of the coalition's withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of 2014.
The Taliban, who were ousted from power by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001, claimed that hundreds had been killed in the attack. The insurgents routinely inflate casualty figures in statements.
Elsewhere in Helmand, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint in the heavily contested district of Sangin, killing at least five soldiers, said Hayatullah, an army commander in the region.
Some of the heaviest fighting this year has been in Helmand, a center for Afghanistan's illicit opium production.
On Wednesday, a coalition air strike killed six Taliban militants preparing to launch attacks on army personnel, Zwak said.
However, there was no coalition air support in the battle for Camp Bastion, now known as Shorab, Khan said. Several Afghan police and army commanders have said they still need international close air support to effectively fight the insurgents.
More than 4,600 Afghan police and soldiers have been killed in the war against the Taliban since the start of the year.
(Reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)