Taliban attackers strike heart of Afghanistan's capital

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 18, 2010 

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Seven Taliban attackers, including a suicide bomber driving an ambulance, hit the center of Kabul on Monday morning, killing five people, wounding at least 71 and demonstrating their ability to strike at the hub of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Gen. Abdul Ghafar Sayed Zada, the head of the criminal investigative division of Kabul's police department, said that security forces had shot five of the attackers, who were armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket launchers and grenades, not far from President Hamid Karzai’s palace, the Ministry of Justice and the Central Bank in Afghanistan’s capital.

The attackers also struck a shopping mall near the presidential palace, setting the building on fire and causing civilian and security force casualties. Three security personnel were killed as they battled the attackers in or near the six-story Froshgha shopping mall, also known as the Grand Afghan Shopping Center. Two civilians also were killed, and the Health Ministry said that at least 71 people had been wounded in the attacks, including three dozen security officials.

In a scene shown on live television, all the mall's windows were blown out and smoke was pouring forth. Afghan army snipers took up positions on the roof of a nearby building.

Two of the dead were Kabul police officers, police said, and one was a member of Afghanistan's intelligence agency.

The Taliban claimed credit for the attacks, which came as Karzai is dueling with parliament over Cabinet appointments and as U.S., British and other officials explore possible paths toward a political settlement in Afghanistan, which almost inevitably would require persuading at least some elements of the Taliban to abandon their fight to restore their extreme brand of Islamic rule.

A U.S. intelligence official said Monday that two changes in the Taliban’s patterns — abandoning a traditional wintertime lull in fighting and carrying their attacks from the countryside into major cities — might be an effort to kill any attempt at reconciliation. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement on the Web site Alemarah, said that 20 of the militant Islamic group’s fighters had entered Kabul from different directions and had attacked the presidential palace, the Ministry of Mines and Industry, the Justice Ministry and the Government Management Department, as well as the Kabul Serena hotel and the Central Bank.

Not all these attacks took place, however. An official with the Kabul police said there were no attacks on the presidential palace or the Serena hotel, which was the scene of a massive Taliban assault in January 2008.

Another police official said the only place attacked was the Froshgha bazaar. Both police officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to journalists.

The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that Afghan police had secured all the roads in the vicinity of the fighting, and that they'd killed at least two armed insurgents in the building.

Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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