KABUL, Afghanistan — A rocket fired amid fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan soldiers killed at least 26 people at a nearby wedding party Thursday, authorities said, a grim end to a year that saw the end of the 13-year U.S.-led combat mission there.
The rocket struck a house in southern Helman province’s Sangin District, where Afghan security forces have been battling insurgents in the six months since U.S. forces withdrew from the area.
Police spokesman Fareed Ahmad Obaid said the rocket wounded at least 45 people. Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a provincial council member, said the death toll could be up to 30 killed with as many as 60 wounded.
Abdul Haleem, a cousin of the bride who was hosting her wedding, said that nine of his children were missing after the rocket struck his house as guests waited outside for the bride to arrive.
“Nine children of mine are missing; I just collected body parts,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s my children or someone else.”
Wednesday marked the final day of the U.S. and NATO’s combat mission, which began with the invasion that overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Qaida then enjoyed safe haven in Afghanistan, where the Taliban ruled according to its own violent interpretation of Islamic law.
Afghanistan’s own 350,000-member-strong forces officially take responsibility for security starting Thursday. The insurgency has been testing the resolve of the army and police, who officials say are holding their ground even as the number of attacks increases and casualties soar.
This year was the deadliest of the war for government forces and civilians, with around 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed, officials have said. An estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, the highest annual toll since the U.N. started keeping figures in 2008.
In much of the south and east, government forces are facing off against the Taliban without the assistance of coalition air support or medical evacuations. They have taken heavy casualties but have thus far prevented the Taliban from seizing large swaths of territory. Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi said the insurgents had “failed to capture even one district.”
Afghan forces may also receive a boost from warming ties with neighboring Pakistan. After the school massacre in the Pakistani town of Peshawar earlier this month – in which more than 140 people were killed, mainly children – the two U.S. allies vowed to work together to combat insurgents on both sides of the porous border.
President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September, has said he wants to bring peace to his country after more than 30 years of continuous war. He has bolstered ties with China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to isolate the Taliban and bring them to the negotiating table.
First Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum said Wednesday that he had reached an agreement with some 300 Taliban fighters in the northern Jawzjan province to lay down their arms.
Fighting continued elsewhere in the country. In the eastern Nangahar province, gunmen shot dead a police officer and two civilians after security forces stopped their car and motorcycle, both of which carried explosives. Provincial police chief Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sherzad said police suspected that they were on their way to attack government offices.
In central Uruzgan province, a police officer killed three of his fellow officers and wounded five while they ate dinner Tuesday, spokesman Dost Mohammad Nayab said. The gunman fled after the shooting and authorities had no motive for the attack.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Amir Shah contributed to this report.