Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers have attacked buildings in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Fighting erupted near the Serena Hotel and the presidential palace, although Afghan President Hamid Karzai says security has now been restored.
The attacks began about 0950 when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in front of the Central Bank, next to the presidential palace. Minutes later, two or three suicide bombers plus armed militants took over a multi-storey shopping centre overlooking the presidential palace, and attacked other government buildings and the five-star Serena Hotel. Afghan troops were prompt to arrive on the scene, engaging the insurgents and preventing wider bloodshed.
While security forces lay siege to the shopping centre, a suicide bomber driving a van painted as a military ambulance, stopped outside the Ministry of Education two blocks away, setting the adjoining Gul Bahar shopping centre on fire.
Militants next took over Bamiyan Hotel adjoining the Ariana Cinema where insurgents had taken children hostage, although the children were later released.
The battle unfolded in the middle of Pashtunistan Square, at rush hour in the busy traffic circle that holds the palace of President Hamid Karzai, the Ministry of Justice and the Central Bank. The Faroshga market, one of the city’s most popular shopping malls, lay in ruins, shattered and burning. As the Ferushgah market erupted in flames, the insurgents holed up inside and began firing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades at security personnel on the Serena’s roof and in nearby government buildings. Some of the hotel’s windows were shattered by bullets as its guests, including diplomats and journalists, took cover in the basement.
U.S. military helicopters hovered overhead as explosions and gun battles then broke out at various locations in the area.
Canadian diplomatic staff retreated to a secure part of the embassy compound, said Ambassador William Crosbie. Crosbie said no Canadians were known to have been hurt in the attack, although it was not possible to be completely sure. It was not known how many Canadian citizens are currently in Kabul, where many of them work for the international military coalition or on the diplomatic front.
Security forces declared the situation under control at about 1500 local time. Afghan forces were searching the city for more attackers.
Two civilians – including one child – and three security personnel were killed, plus 71 others wounded, 35 of them civilians, officials say. All seven attackers had also been killed; five were gunned down and two killed themselves. The Defence Ministry said in a statement that 10 attackers had been killed. It was not immediately clear how bad the damage was as security forces cordoned off the entire area.
The city is now calm, but there is concern that some of the attackers are at large.
Monday’s attack comes amid continuing political uncertainty in Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai was swearing in new members of his cabinet at the time of the attack. Also meanwhile, the United States are in the process of sending 30,000 additional troops to aid in fighting the mounting Taliban-led insurgency.
The Taliban has taken responsibility for the attack. It said that 20 of its fighters had taken part in the attack. A statement on their website said the raid had targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the city centre. 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 in Afghanistan. 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.
Kabul, which is home to about four or five million people, is a bustling city. Security is everywhere, and government buildings in particular are heavily fortified. Still, Taliban insurgents have shown on several occasions that they are capable of striking high-profile targets.
Security in central Kabul was restored by nightfall. About four hours after the siege began, Karzai, in a statement, said, “The security situation is under control and order has once again been restored.” (The Washington Post) The capital resembled an armed camp Monday night, with most of the center of the city closed off, Afghan police, soldiers and NATO forces positioned at intersections and on rooftops, and businesses in the heart of the city shuttered.