LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Gunmen opened fire on a gathering of Afghan Muslim clerics in the southern province of Helmand, killing seven people, police said on Wednesday.
The Ulemma 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 Islamist 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 Ulemma 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.
Reporing by Mohammad Stanikzai; Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson