KABUL (Reuters) - Gunmen mounted coordinated attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday, battling security forces for hours in the city’s main commercial area after three large explosions sent plumes of smoke and dust into the sky.
At least seven people were killed, including two police, and 17 were wounded in the incident, health officials said. It was the latest in a string of attacks that have caused hundreds of casualties in Kabul since the beginning of the year.
“There was a huge explosion, and that panicked everyone,” said witness Khushal Khan, who was in the Shar-e Naw area of Kabul when the attacks happened. “We tried to get out of the area when there was another explosion and heavy gunfire.”
As fighting continued late into the afternoon and passersby took shelter in nearby buildings, explosions could be heard periodically from the area, in a busy business district full of shops and offices.
As evening fell, police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai said special forces had killed the final gunmen resisting and specialists were investigating the site.
The Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, which came around half an hour after an apparently separate incident in the west of the city.
Shortly before the twin explosions in Shar-e Naw, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a police station in the western Kabul district of Dasht-e Barchi and gunmen followed up, fighting security forces for several hours.
Part of the police station was burnt down by the attackers who were throwing hand-grenades. A would-be suicide bomber was also gunned down before he could reach his target nearby.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack but many officials doubt the group, which has its stronghold in a remote eastern border region of Nangarhar province, has the capacity to mount such complex attacks.
A senior Afghan security official said intelligence services believe the Haqqani network, a militant group affiliated to the Taliban which has a long record of urban attacks, was the real organizer of the attack.
Afghanistan’s Western-backed government is fighting an intensifying war with both the Taliban and the Islamic State that has turned much of Kabul into a high security zone of concrete blast walls and razor wire.
Earlier this year the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said protecting Kabul would be the “main effort” after repeated major attacks, including one in January that killed more than 100 people.
But despite repeated government pledges to tighten security, authorities have appeared powerless to stop the periodic attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of people and undermined confidence in the authorities.
One witness in central Kabul said Wednesday’s attack in the city’s business district started with gunmen shooting police before one entered a building and blew himself up.
“At first, the attackers opened fire on a policeman and shot him in the mouth,” said Zamir Jan, who was standing nearby when the attack started. “Right after that, they killed another person in the area and then one of the attackers entered in the building and detonated his explosives.”
With preparations for elections now underway across much of the country, more attacks are expected on voter registration centers following a blast in one center last month in which 60 people lining up for identity cards were killed.
At the same time, fighting has picked up across Afghanistan, following the start of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive on April 25, with the insurgents seizing a district center in the northern province of Baghlan on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak told reporters that security forces had gunned down two insurgents at one of the two clash sites.
The attacks in Kabul and the renewed fighting have buried hopes expressed earlier this year that the Taliban may be open to peace negotiations following President Ashraf Ghani’s offer in February of talks “without pre-conditions”.
Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by James Mackenzie