KABUL (Reuters) - Foreigners were among at least nine people killed and 18 wounded in Taliban attacks in Kabul on Friday, officials said, the latest audacious assault in the Afghan capital despite a renewed push against the insurgents.
The attack came as NATO-led foreign troops and Afghan forces press ahead with an offensive against the Taliban in their stronghold in southern Helmand province, a key element of Washington’s new strategy to put down a growing insurgency.
Police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the entrance to Kabul’s biggest shopping center soon after daybreak. At least two blasts and gunfire were reported in the area, which includes a hotel, guest house and some government buildings.
“We have nine people killed and 18 others wounded, foreigners among the casualties,” Health Ministry official Sakhi Noorgholi told Reuters.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of the Islamist militants.
“Our mujahidi (holy warrior) fighters managed to attack in the heart of Kabul city once again,” Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He said at least five Taliban fighters launched the attack. Two suicide bombers detonated explosives-packed vests near the hotel and the City Center shopping mall. Three fighters were still holed up in the basement of the shopping center, he said.
A police official said there was still sporadic firing from the basement. “The situation is under control,” said the police official, who asked not to be identified.
A Reuters cameraman said he saw two bodies being carried from the guest house but could not make out their identities. The Reuters cameraman spoke to one man inside the guest house who identified himself as an Indian named Kashif.
“I was inside my room when I heard a loud explosion and then I could not see if people were killed or wounded because I locked my door,” Kashif said.
The commando-style assault was the worst in the capital since Taliban gunmen launched a brazen attack on several targets in the center of the city on January 18, killing five police and civilians.
U.S. and other NATO-led foreign forces have pushed back against the Taliban after violence across Afghanistan last year hit its worst levels since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Earlier this month, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force launched a big offensive in southern Helmand to drive the Taliban out of their last major stronghold in Afghanistan’s most violent province.
The Taliban over the past 18 months have spread out of their strongholds in the south and the east to formerly more peaceful areas in the north and west, sometimes reaching the capital despite a dramatic increase in the number of foreign troops.
The latest operation in Helmand is an early test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to add 30,000 troops to win control of Taliban bastions and hand them over to Afghan authorities before the start of a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
The new attack shattered the early morning calm in the capital at the start of the Afghan weekend. Thick smoke could be seen rising above the neighborhood.
“I heard a big blast,” witness Quaree Sameh told Reuters.
“The glass shattered. The attackers were throwing grenades and shooting,” Sameh said.
Broken glass littered the street on a wet, cold morning as Afghan security forces wearing bullet-proof vests rushed to secure the area, some taking up positions in doorways and others crouching behind concrete barriers.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan