KABUL - Taliban fighters backed by a suicide bomber attacked a police headquarters in southern Afghanistan on Monday, killing five people as the insurgents step up attacks and foreign forces pack up and leave the country.

The latest attack on Afghan security forces was in the southern province of Kandahar, the cradle of the hard-line Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan for five years.

A policeman and four civilians died in the attack that started when a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform detonated a carload of explosives at the main gate of the compound in Kandahar’s Maiwand district.

Four heavily armed gunmen then forced their way inside, government spokesman Sameem Khpalwak said. The fighting in Maiwand lasted for two hours, before security forces killed the attackers.

A Taliban spokesman in southern Afghanistan, Qadri Yusuf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility.

This has been the bloodiest year since 2001 in Afghanistan’s 13-year-old war, with the Taliban engaging police and soldiers across the country. Dozens of Afghans die daily in violence.

About 4,600 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed as of November, up more than 6 percent over the corresponding period of 2013.

The Taliban emerged from Kandahar in the 1990s and went on to rule the country until being toppled by the US-led invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. They have been seeking to re-establish a hard-line Islamic state ever since.

Foreign troops are winding up the combat mission in a few weeks and, sensing an opportunity, the Taliban has again stepped up attacks across the country as well as in the capital, Kabul.

The International Security Assistance Joint Command, which ran the coalition combat operations, held a flag-lowering ceremony on Monday to hand over to the international support and training mission that begins on January 1.

Lt-Gen Joseph Anderson, outgoing chief of the joint command, said he was confident the Afghan police and army could prevent the Taliban from regaining territory next year.

“This country is safer and more prosperous than ever,” he said. “The insurgents have been beaten back and the Afghan National Security Forces are carrying the fight to the enemy.”

The reverse of the programme for the ceremony belied the projection of safety and security, however, advising attendees to lie on the ground in case insurgents launched a rocket attack.