KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban suicide attackers and gunmen struck the Kandahar headquarters of the United Nations' primary refugee agency Monday, the third major attack on foreigners in Afghanistan in less than a week.
Seven Afghans were killed in the attack, including three U.N. employees and a police officer, according to the U.N. and provincial officials. Four other people, including two Afghan police officers and a Nepalese national, were wounded.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, called the attack a "tragedy" and said he was "hugely saddened."
The brazen early-morning attack underscored the ability of Taliban and allied insurgents to stage high-profile attacks despite NATO claims that the insurgency is weakening.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef, claimed responsibility for the attack and said the intended target was a guesthouse used by International Relief and Development, a leading U.S. government contractor for aid projects.
The assault began when a suicide bomber crashed a truck filled with explosives into a checkpoint that guarded the entrance into the neighborhood where the U.N. offices and those of several U.S. and international aid agencies are.
Three Taliban fighters wearing suicide vests and armed with AK-47 rifles later entered an animal clinic and started shooting at police, said Mohammad Faisal, the head of the Kandahar media office. Afghan security forces responded by sealing off the area, essentially trapping the insurgents inside the clinic, and exchanging fire with them, Faisal said.
Faisal added that the insurgents attempted to storm the nearby U.N. compound but police killed them.
The attack came four days after Taliban fighters opened fire on a military base used by Americans in Kandahar, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding eight others, including five NATO soldiers.
Gen. Abdul Razzaq, the police chief of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and a longtime Taliban hotbed, initially was reported to be among the dead Monday morning, but the Kandahar media office dismissed the reports.
"Gen. Abdul Razzaq is alive and he is leading the clearing operation now," the office said in a statement.
Kandahar provincial officials downplayed the significance of the attack. explosives into an armored NATO military bus that was traveling on a busy road in western Kabul. Seventeen people were killed, "Afghan national police once again succeeded in disrupting a well-planned, massive insurgent attack and prevented a large number of casualties,” a statement by the governor’s office said.
But the attack underscored that — despite the end of the traditional summer "fighting season" in Afghanistan — the Taliban recently have stepped up attacks nationwide on foreign and Afghan government facilities and representatives.
Two days ago in the capital, a Taliban suicide bomber rammed a vehicle reportedly packed with more than 1,500 pounds of including five U.S. soldiers and eight U.S. civilian contractors, in the deadliest attack on Americans in Kabul in recent memory.
Zohori is a McClatchy special correspodent.