LASHKAR GAH - Gunmen opened fire on a gathering of Afghan Muslim clerics in the southern province of Helmand, killing seven people, police said on Wednesday.

The Ulema Council, the highest religious authority in a deeply conservative country, came under attack after it had repeatedly announced its support for security forces fighting the hardline Taliban insurgents. ‘The meeting was ongoing when two Taliban gunmen attacked the gathering,’ police official Jan Aqa said.

Four civilians and three police were killed and seven people wounded in the attack in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Afghan forces rushed to the scene and killed the two gunmen in the ensuing three-hour gun battle, security officials said. The Afghan Taliban, ousted from power in 2001, have been fighting to bring down the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and stepped up attacks after most foreign forces pulled out at the end of last year.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack and said 15 officials were killed. The insurgents often exaggerate the number of casualties they inflict. Helmand province has been the scene of number of deadly attacks by the Taliban. Numbering some 3,000 clerics and scholars and headed by a 150-strong National Council, the powerful Ulema can sway public opinion significantly through mosques across the country that are still the main source of Afghan social cohesion.

Taliban insurgents have stepped up their attacks against Afghan forces since they announced their ‘spring offensive’ last month. Meanwhile, two heavily armed Taliban gunmen stormed a mosque in southern Afghanistan Wednesday, officials said, killing at least six people in a fight with security forces that lasted several hours and ended with their deaths. The incident took place in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the volatile poppy-rich province of Helmand, the latest attack in the militants’ annual spring offensive that they have waged since being ousted from power in late 2001.

‘Six people including three police were killed and 12 wounded,’ Mohammad Jan Rasolyar the deputy provincial governor told AFP. Padsha Gul Bakhtyar, the province’s deputy police chief confirmed the toll and said the attackers, who were disguised in police uniform, had arrived by motorcycle. ‘They first tried to enter the governor’s building, but after police prevented them they entered a mosque and started firing at religious scholars who were attending a meeting in a nearby building,’ he said.

He said at least two of the victims were members of the Ulema Council of Helmand, a top religious authority in the province. The Taliban, who have waged a 13-year war to topple the US-backed Afghan government claimed responsibility for the attack. Taliban insurgents launched their spring offensive across Afghanistan late last month, stepping up attacks on government and foreign targets. This year’s offensive marks the first fighting season in which Afghan forces are battling the insurgents without the full support of US-led foreign combat troops. NATO’s combat mission formally ended in December but a small follow-up foreign force has stayed on to train and support local security personnel.