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Afghan police say gunmen opened fire on a gathering of Muslim clerics in the southern province of Helmand on May 13, killing seven people.

The Ulemma Council, the highest religious authority in Afghanistan, had repeatedly announced its support for security forces fighting Taliban insurgents.

Police official Jan Aqa said two Taliban gunment attacked the ongoing meeting of the council in Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

Four civilians and three police were killed and seven people wounded in the attack.

Afghan forces rushed to the scene and killed the two gunmen in an ensuing three-hour gun battle, security officials said.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the country 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.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa