Afghanistan: Taliban Launches Fierce Assault on Kabul

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Taliban launches fierce assault on Kabul

An Afghan policeman stands in front of the shopping mall, where Taliban gunmen battled security forces for hours, as the government forces restored control after the attack in Kabul January 18, 2010. (REUTERS)

(Financial Times) — Taliban militants on Monday launched one of their fiercest assaults on Kabul, the Afghan capital, since their government was ousted from power in 2001 after the September 11 terror attacks on the US.

At least five gunmen were killed after running gun battles in the streets of central Kabul and a series of suicide bomb attacks near banks and several government ministries. A four-hour exchange of fire culminated in a siege at a shopping complex where the gunmen had holed up as plumes of acrid smoke rose above the city.

The co-ordinated terror attack rocked the Afghan capital as members of Mr Karzai’s new cabinet were sworn into office. The attack also coincided with a visit by Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s special representative, to the region and preceded the arrival of Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, in New Delhi for talks.

The Taliban had earlier claimed that 20 militants had staged the attack, and that their target had been the presidential palace and administrative buildings.

President Hamid Karzai said the security situation was now under control but reports of sporadic fighting continued.

The commando-style attack comes only days before an international conference in London on Afghanistan’s reconstruction intended to bolster support for President Karzai’s newly re-elected government. It forms part of a series of brazen strikes that show the ability of militants to penetrate the capital’s defences and hit close to the heart of Afghanistan’s well-guarded administration.

Mr Karzai said on Monday that Taliban forces were trying to sow “national discord” among Afghans.

Mr Holbrooke, in New Delhi for meetings with the Indian government as the attack was under way, said: “The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack nor will they succeed, but we can expect this sort of thing on a regular basis. That is who the Taliban are.”

Almost a year ago a similar well-planned attack had been launched on government buildings, killing 28 people. Then, eight gunmen stormed justice ministry buildings and the ministry of education bringing panic to the centre of Kabul.

Many commentators interpret these strikes as intended to sap confidence in Mr Karzai’s government and as warnings to the US and Nato forces that foreign troops face fierce resistance from a Taliban enemy able to wage war in the south and strike the capital city.

The US’s immediate answer to a hardening of Taliban resistance over the past year has been to order an increase in the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan by 30,000. But neighbouring countries are beginning to consider what their role might be when Nato troops are reduced in the years ahead.

Attacks on Kabul were renewed ahead of last August’s presidential election. The last major attack on the capital was on December 15, when a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle outside the homes of former senior government officials, killing eight people and injuring more than 40.

In October a guesthouse occupied by United Nations employees was overrun by Taliban militants, who killed six UN workers.

By James Lamont in New Delhi
Published: January 18 2010 06:25 | Last updated: January 18 2010 12:06

Source: The Financial Times

Teams of Militants Launch Bold Attack in Central Kabul

Afghan security officers took cover while a market burned and gunfire was exchanged during an attack by militants in Kabul on Monday.

(New York Times) KABUL, Afghanistan — Teams of militants launched a spectacular assault at the heart of the Afghan government Monday, with at least two men detonating suicide bombs and the rest fighting to the death only 50 feet from the gates of the presidential palace.

Smoke rising over Kabul on Monday.

The attacks, the latest in a series targeting the Afghan capital, paralyzed the city for hours, as hundreds of Afghan commandos converged and opened fire. The battle unfolded in the middle of Pashtunistan Square, a traffic circle that holds the palace of President Hamid Karzai, the Ministry of Justice and the Central Bank, which appeared to be the object of the attack.

As the gun battle raged, another suicide bomber — this one driving an ambulance — struck a traffic circle a half-mile away, sending a second mass of bystanders fleeing in terror.

Five hours after the attack began, gunfire was still echoing through the downtown, as commandos cornered the last holdouts in a nearby office building. Afghan officials reported that at least four soldiers and one civilian were killed, and at least 38 people were wounded. The Faroshga market, one of the city’s most popular shopping malls, lay in ruins, shattered and burning and belching smoke.

The corpses of two of the militants lay splayed under blankets, their heads and bodies riddled and smashed.

The effect of the attack seemed primarily psychological, designed to strike fear into the usually quiet precincts of downtown Kabul — and to drive home the ease with which insurgents could strike the American-backed government here.

In that way the assault succeeded without question: The streets of Kabul emptied, merchants shuttered their shops and Afghans ran from their offices. Even guards assigned to Mr. Karzai himself came to join the fighting; it was that close.

“All of a sudden three men came in wrapped in shawls—and then they pulled them off and we could see their guns and grenades,” said an Afghan man who witnessed one part of the attack on an adjacent shopping center. “They told us to get out, and then they went to the roof and started firing.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Reached by telephone, a spokesman said the group had sent 20 suicide bombers for the operation. This was an exaggeration.

“Some of our suicide bombers have blown themselves up, bringing heavy casualties to government officials,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban.

Civilians were caught up, too. At the height of it, women and men, some of them clutching babies, ran down the streets, some bleeding, some moaning and crying. Even a stray dog, frightened by the blast of one of the bombs, dashed wildly down the street.

A second Taliban representative, also reached by phone, said the attack was intended to answer American and Afghan proposals to “reconcile” with and “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into mainstream society. The plan is part of the American-backed campaign to turn the tide of the war, and will be showcased later this month at an international conference in London.

“We are ready to fight, and we have the strength to fight, and nobody from the Taliban side is ready to make any kind of deal,” Mr. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said. “The world community and the international forces are trying to buy the Taliban, and that is why we are showing that we are not for sale.”

The assault was the latest in a series of audacious operations meant to shatter the calm of the Afghan capital. The Taliban is a mostly rural phenomenon in a mostly rural country; the overwhelming majority of American troops are deployed in small outposts in the countryside. On most days, the war does not reach the urban centers.

But increasingly the Taliban are bringing the fight into the cities. In October, militants wearing suicide belts attacked a United Nations guest house in Kabul and killed eight people, including five of the organization’s workers. In December, a suicide car bomber struck the Heetal Hotel, killing eight people and wounding 48.

The prototype of Monday’s operation was the assault on the Ministry of Justice, which a team of guerrillas, including suicide bombers, stormed last February. The militants killed the guards, got inside and stalked the halls for victims. At least 10 people died, not including the militants, whose bodies the police dumped unceremoniously in the streets.

Monday’s attack began at 9:30 a.m., when the streets of downtown Kabul were jammed with traffic. A man wearing a suicide belt approached the gates of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, which regulates the flow of currency in the country, and tried to push past the guards. The guards shot him, but not before the bomber managed to detonate his payload. He exploded in the street.

Simultaneously, a group of guerrillas rushed the Faroshga market, a five-story shopping mall next door. They expelled the shoppers and shopkeepers and ran to the higher floors to begin shooting, possibly to cover the advance of the bomber. Other groups of fighters slipped into the Ministry of Justice and the Ariana cinema house, the police said, but a survey of both sites revealed no evidence of that.

Some witnesses said a second suicide bomber struck outside the Faroshga market, but, if that was the case then he vanished without a trace.

Within minutes, hundreds of Afghan commandos, soldiers and police surrounded Pashtunistan Square and attacked. Some of the Afghan fighters were part of specially formed antiterrorism squads. Monday’s gun battle was notable for the absence of American soldiers. A small group of special forces fighters from New Zealand were the only Western soldiers on the scene.

One group of Afghan commandos said they had come right from a training class.

“We were going through drills when we got the word,” said Bawahuddin, a young member of an antiterrorism squad, standing behind a wall as he prepared to move in. Bawahuddin flashed a thumbs up sign. “We’re ready — we’re ready.”

And then his unit got the word — “Go now, go now!” — and the men began to move. And Bawahuddin’s eyes flashed with fear.

“Either we are going to kill them, or they are going to kill us,” said Saifullah Serhabi, a commando on the edge of the fight.

Bullets flew in every direction, thousands of them. The militants, holed up at the roof of the market, fired and fought as their building exploded and burned. A blast sounded, and then another — possibly the shock waves of exploding bombers. But in the chaos, no one seemed to know.

With the battle raging, a huge shock wave rippled from another part of town — the suicide car bomber. His van, complete with a siren and light, was marked “Maiwand Hospital” on its sides and front, so the police let it through. It exploded in Malik Asgar Square, blasting a crater in the street and shaking the ground for a mile.

Afterward, the remains of the ambulance lay in the road, its twisted shards still smoking. Police pulled out the pieces of a man— dark skinned and heavy set. An Arab, they said. But no one seemed to know for sure.

Sangar Rahimi, Alissa J. Rubin, Abdul Waheed Wafa and Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Published: January 18, 2010

Source: The New York Times

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