Taliban storm airport complex in southern Afghan city

Taliban militants stormed the airport complex in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar city on Tuesday, triggering gunfights and explosions as a regional conference kicked off in Pakistan with hopes of reviving peace talks with the insurgents.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attack, the second major assault in the space of 24 hours in the city recognised as the birthplace of the Taliban, although several passengers were trapped in an airport terminal.

Taliban gunmen were targeting residential blocks housing government employees and the joint Afghan-NATO military base at the airport, according to Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor.

"Several insurgents managed to breach the first gate of the complex," he told AFP, as the battles raged.

"They have taken up position in a school inside the complex."

Local residents, who were told to hunker down in their homes, reported piercing explosions and a booming volley of gunfire.

Mohammad Mohsin Sultani, the military spokesman in Kandahar, said Afghan troops were engaged in a heavy firefight to beat back the attackers, whose exact number was unclear.

Some passengers were trapped inside the civilian terminal, far from the fighting in the sprawling complex, when their commercial flight to India was suspended, Kandahar airport director Ahmadullah Faizi told AFP.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes on the eve of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's high-profile visit to Islamabad for a regional conference.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter said that "150 Afghan and foreign soldiers" had been killed in the fierce fighting. The insurgents are regularly known to exaggerate battlefield claims.

The Taliban have been ramping up attacks on government and foreign targets despite the onset of the harsh winter season when the fighting usually winds down.

- 'A familiar pattern' -

The raid also comes after days of fevered speculation about the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour following reports that he was critically wounded in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan.

Ghani's willingness to visit longtime nemesis Pakistan for the Heart of Asia conference -- which will also include representatives from India, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran -- has signalled a renewed push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban, despite a spike in cross-border tensions.

"It has become a familiar pattern. Whenever there is talk about peace talks, the Taliban launch big attacks," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.

"It shows that either they want to scuttle efforts towards talks or want big concessions before they reach the negotiating table."

Pakistan, which has historically supported the Afghan Taliban and wields considerable influence over the insurgents, hosted a milestone first round of peace negotiations in July.

But the talks soon stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar, sparking a power struggle within the movement that lead to the creation of a rival faction last month.

The leadership of the insurgent group is once again in question, after days of frantic conjecture about the fate of Mansour.

The Taliban released an audio message Saturday purportedly from Mansour, vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as "enemy propaganda".

Ghani also said Monday that there was no evidence to prove that Mansour was dead after multiple insurgent sources cast doubt on the authenticity of the Taliban audio message.

The Islamists' denials have fallen on sceptical ears, however, especially after they kept Mullah Omar's death secret for two years.

Rumours of his demise could potentially intensify the simmering rifts within the insurgent movement.

The Taliban has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency.

They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years.