KABUL (Reuters) - The insurgents who mounted weekend attacks in central Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan carefully rehearsed for months, even building small military-style models and pre-positioning weapons, a Taliban spokesman said on Monday.
Zabihullah Mujahid provided Reuters with a rare insight into how the group plans strategic high-profile attacks designed to deal a psychological blow to U.S.-led NATO forces and their allies in the Afghan security forces.
In the latest, a 30-member suicide squad was dispatched to launch simultaneous assaults on parliament, NATO bases and Western embassies after two months of painstaking discussions on tactics.
“Our military experts sketched maps of the targets and also created a mock-up of them where fighters carried out practice before carrying out the large-scale operations in four provinces,” Mujahid said in a phone interview.
“The fighters also learned how to enter their targets and hold them.”
His account could not be independently verified.
Heavy street fighting between militants and security forces in the centre of the Afghan capital ended on Monday after 18 hours of gunfire, rocket attacks and explosions that bore strong similarities with an operation last year.
In both assaults, insurgents occupied high-rise construction sites to use as firebases after smuggling weapons into central Kabul past police checkpoints.
The battles that broke out at midday on Sunday gripped the city’s central districts into the evening and through the night, with blasts and gunfire lighting up alleys and streets before Afghan special forces soldiers backed by NATO helicopter gunships killed the insurgents.
Mujahid said the insurgents, who were mostly all killed by security forces, had been selected from among the estimated 50,000 fighters battling NATO and Afghan troops and given special training.
“Ordinary fighters can’t obviously carry out these important missions,” he said. “The fighters who were assigned for this mission received special training on how to use heavy machine guns, suicide bomb vests and other tactics.”
Mujahid said heavy machine guns, rocket grenades and ammunition had been put in place well before the assault with inside help from Afghan security forces, but did not elaborate.
A witness to the attack in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter saw insurgents in a dark blue Prado SUV opening fire on a policeman before entering a building that he had been guarding.
“One Taliban opened fire toward a security guard from a window of the vehicle and another went to a security checkpoint and wounded the man inside, occupying his position,” said Ahmad Zeya Azami, 29, a car mechanic, who worked next door.
“Five Taliban ran into the building.”
Azami said one insurgent targeted the multi-storey Kabul Star Hotel with a rocket-propelled grenade, while another opened fire on the nearby diplomatic quarter.
“I closed our shop and escaped from the area without any wounds. But now everybody is living in fear and losing hope about the future,” he said.
Ahmad Farhad, 19, another shopkeeper, said the insurgents had appeared calm and very well prepared.
“One went to the police checkpoint and others went into the building in an organized way, like they had seen the area before,” Farhad said. “All were wearing traditional clothes, black or grey, and all looked to be aged about 30.”
Farhad said the men had been armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, and some had carried bags as they climbed out of a black four-wheel-drive.
Afghan and U.S. officials have blamed the attacks on the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, based along the porous Afghan-Pakistan mountain border.
Mujahid denied any involvement by the insurgent group, one of the most feared in Afghanistan. The United States has long pressed Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network, which analysts say Islamabad regards as a strategic asset.
Any Haqqani role in the weekend assault would likely further strain relations between Washington and Islamabad.
“The attacks were very successful for us and were a remarkable achievement, dealing a psychological and political blow to foreigners and the government,” Mujahid said.
“Although the Haqqanis are part of the Taliban, we did not ask for any help, guidance or support. This is a baseless plot from the West, who wants to show that we are separate.”
Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Michael Georgy