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

There was no immediate information on casualties in the ongoing attack, the first major assault after days of fevered speculation that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in an internal firefight. “Several insurgents managed to breach the first gate of the complex,” Samim Khpalwak, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, told AFP.

“They have taken up position in a school inside the complex.” Mohammad Mohsin Sultani, the military spokesman in Kandahar, said the exact number of attackers was unclear and Afghan troops were engaged in a heavy gunfight with them. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes a day before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is due to visit Islamabad for the Heart of Asia regional conference. “A number of mujahideen martyrdom-seekers equipped with heavy and light weapons entered Kandahar airport and have attacked invading forces,” the Taliban said in as statement. “Fierce fighting is ongoing.”

Ghani’s willingness to visit Pakistan for the conference, a longtime regional nemesis, has signalled a renewed push to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban. 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 their longtime leader Mullah Omar. Tuesday’s brazen raid comes after days of frantic conjecture about the fate of Mansour following reports that he was critically wounded in a shootout with his own commanders in Pakistan. 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 is dead but multiple insurgent sources have cast doubt on the authenticity of the Taliban audio message. Vehement denials by the Islamist group of any clash have fallen on sceptical ears, especially after they kept the death of longtime chief Mullah Omar secret for two years.

Ghani’s remarks are at odds with those of a government spokesman, who sparked a flurry of reactions when he tweeted on Friday that Mansour was dead. The Taliban, which saw its first formal split last month, had appeared anxious to quell speculation about Mansour’s death, which could intensify the power struggle within the insurgent movement.

More than 50 people have been killed and dozens more wounded in renewed fighting between rival Taliban factions in Shindand district near the western Afghan city of Herat, a local police spokesman said on Tuesday. The latest clashes underlined the fragmented state of the Islamist movement since the Taliban confirmed in July that its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died more than two years earlier in 2013.

Rival groups have rejected the authority of Omar’s successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour and called for a new process to choose a leader. There has been intermittent fighting in which scores have been killed.

Ehsanullah Hayat, a police spokesman in Herat, said 54 insurgents had been killed and around 40 wounded in the fighting between commanders loyal to Mullah Mansour and his rival Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which he said was continuing.

The clashes follow days of confusion over the fate of Mullah Mansour. Reports that he had been seriously wounded in a shootout with other Taliban commanders were rebutted in an audio recording purporting to show he was still alive.

It was not immediately possible to obtain a comment from the Taliban about the latest fighting.