Monday, January 18, 2010

Taliban launches audacious attack on targets in Kabul

Maybe you forgot, but we're still losing the war in Afghanistan. We're losing because we have no interest in winning.

    The Taliban has launched its most audacious attack on the Afghan capital in the last year with assaults on a cinema, a five-star hotel, government buildings and a shopping centre.

    London Telegraph -

    At least five people were killed and nearly 40 wounded when up to 20 fighters on suicide missions attempted to storm buildings in the centre of Kabul.

    The brazen attacks provoked gun battles lasting several hours and nine of the assailants died, with at least four blowing themselves up.

    The multi-pronged assault came as President Hamid Karzai swore in members of his new cabinet just a few hundred yards from the fighting.

    The militants were prevented from entering government ministries, but holed up in a shopping centre and cinema for at least three hours as security forces laid seige.

    As the sporadic chatter of machine gun fire sounded across the city, a pall of black smoke gathered over the district where the attack took place.

    The country's only five-star hotel, the Serena, came under fire from machine guns and rockets and guests were shepherded into a basement bunker.

    A Taliban spokesman said the movement had carried out the attack with 20 fighters and targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building.

    The exact number of attackers was not clear, but unease spread through the city with rumours that some of the bombers had escaped the initial fighting and evaded the security cordon.

    Afghan security forces closed roads in the city centre and set up checkpoints looking for further attackers and shopkeepers closed their businesses.

    Mr Karzai claimed the security crisis was over hours after militants launched the attacks on Monday morning. He said "the enemies of Afghanistan are ... trying to spread fear among Kabul citizens".

    Gordon Brown condemned the attacks and pledged to "stand united" with the Afghan Government.

    The attacks began at soon after 9.30am local time with a suicide bombing outside the Central Bank on Pashtunistan Square, which also holds the palace, cinema, justice ministry and shopping centre.

    Four militants ran into the nearby four-storey Qari Sami shopping centre and ordered the shopkeepers to flee. A watchseller who refused was shot dead.

    Nasrullah Baraki, a 25-year-old carpet seller, said: "They were four young boys with short beards and said: 'Do not worry about your belongings, save you lives and get out'."

    Once inside they began throwing grenades and the top three floors were soon gutted by fire.

    Shopkeepers barricaded themselves into a basement until the smoke became too thick to breathe and then managed to flee.

    Ismail, a grocer in the ground floor, said: "I saw four people wrapped up in blankets coming and the guard went forward and asked them 'what are you doing?' "One of them opened his blanket and showed the guard a suicide vest packed with explosives and said to him 'get out of my way or you'll die'. Then they went upstairs and we just ran for our lives."

    An hour later, a suicide car bomb detonated at a roundabout outside the newly-built Gulbahar shopping centre several hundred yards away.

    Unconfirmed reports suggested the attackers had stolen a military ambulance to carry out the car bombing.

    Afghan security forces said a total of four suicide bombers had detonated and five other attackers had been killed when the shopping centre was retaken. Soldiers and a child were reported to be among the victims.

    A spokesman for the president's palace said the swearing in of new ministers had continued and no one in the palace had been hurt.

    Richard Holbrooke, United States special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban were desperate and ruthless, but predicted similar attacks would be seen "on a regular basis".

    Militants have repeatedly been able to breach the city's defenses and in October stormed a guesthouse and killed six international United Nations staff in an assault which led to the pull out of hundreds of workers.

    In Febraury 2009, fighters killed 26 people in the same district when they attempted to storm government ministries.