KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban attackers laid siege to a British cultural center in the Afghan capital on Friday, killing at least nine people during an hours-long assault on the 92nd anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from British rule.
A suicide bomber in car blew himself up in front of the gate of the British Council in Kabul before dawn, and another car packed with explosives detonated moments later while four attackers, three of them men clad in the all-enveloping burqa cloak worn by Afghan women, stormed the compound, police said.
Scores of Afghan and NATO troops surrounded a compound strewn with wooden and metal debris while two helicopters hovered on watch above as the fighting progressed over at least eight hours, interspersed by a total of eight blasts.
Toward the end of the siege, one of the attackers holed himself up in the bulletproof basement of the shattered building. There was only one option left to get him out, authorities said: blow him up.
A Reuters witness heard two big blasts in close succession near the siege’s end, around 1 p.m. Kabul time (4:30 a.m. EDT).
“Eight members of the Afghan national police and one foreign soldier were killed,” Mohammad Zahir, head of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, told Reuters. He said he was not able to confirm the nationality of the foreign soldier.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed a foreign soldier died in the attack but did not identify the nationality.
A ministry of interior statement later said at least 22 people were wounded in the attack on the British Council, a state-funded agency running cultural and English language programs. It is not part of the British embassy in Kabul’s diplomatic zone.
Two British teachers and one South African were inside the compound during the attack, but were later rescued by an elite Afghan unit, British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sir William Patey told a press conference.
“This was a dastardly, cowardly attack designed to attack British interests, but ultimately ending in the deaths of many Afghans and we regret the death of the Afghans,” Patey said, adding that the attack was over.
Kabul police chief Mohammad Ayob Salongi said four Afghan police, three Nepalese British Council guards and one Afghan street cleaner were killed. He too had no details on the nationality of the foreign soldier.
A Reuters photograph taken at the scene showed what appeared to be a white male being lifted onto a stretcher with blood across his back and wound to the back of his head. A second photo showed a Union Jack insignia on his left shoulder, and a different uniform than those worn by British Council’s guards.
The Taliban said they were sending two messages: “One to the Afghan government and one to the British,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.
“We are now reminding them that we will become independent again from all foreigners, especially from the British,” Mujahid said, referring to Afghanistan’s independence from British rule 92 years ago, which the country was marking on Friday amid heightened security.
After the United States, Britain has the second-largest force in the NATO-led war against the Taliban, with around 9,500 troops.
The British Council said it would continue its work in Afghanistan despite the attack.
“This attack must not, and will not, prevent the British Council from giving these young Afghans the support they need to be part of the wider world,” Martin Davidson, the organization’s CEO, told reporters in London.
The Taliban declined to say how many bombers took part in the attack, which come a month after NATO handed over security responsibilities to the Afghans in several areas across the country as part of a gradual transition process to be completed by the end of 2014.
Afghan forces have been given responsibility for the city of Kabul since 2008, but NATO forces still police the area heavily.
There is growing unease in the United States and Europe about the costly and increasingly violent war against Islamist militants in Afghanistan that has dragged on for 10 years, causing U.S. lawmakers to question whether bringing home all combat troops by 2014 is fast enough.
NATO and the United States earlier this year reluctantly backed Kabul’s peace plan, which involves reconciliation with some members of the Taliban. The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not negotiate with the Afghan government until all foreign forces have stopped fighting in their country.
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman in Kabul and Matt Falloon in London; Writing by Bryson Hull, editing by Miral Fahmy