KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents, including at least six suicide bombers, hit government targets in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar on Saturday, triggering gunbattles that killed two people in what the militants said was part of their “spring offensive”.
Dozens were wounded in the attacks, which began with a fusillade of rocket-propelled grenades aimed at the provincial governor’s housing complex in the city center.
More blasts followed in other areas, including outlying districts, in several coordinated attacks, officials said. Gunfire could still be heard late on Saturday, although Afghan officials said this was mainly from clearing operations.
“If these attacks were aimed at seizing control of Kandahar city, as the Taliban proclaimed, they failed,” a senior official from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
Shooting erupted after the first explosion hours earlier and insurgents opened fire from a five-storey shopping mall toward the governor’s fortified compound, from where security forces returned fire as black smoke rose over the city.
“This clearly was intended to be a spring offensive spectacular attack which was thwarted by Afghan National Security Forces,” U.S. Marine Major-General James Laster said after security forces finally managed to gain control.
Six suicide bombers detonated vehicle explosives at several government targets across the city, including a building belonging to the intelligence service, a foreign special forces base and Afghan police checkpoints.
Between three and six other suicide bombers failed to reach their targets, Laster said, “either detonating prematurely or being killed before they could detonate”.
Gunfights between the militants and security forces lasted for several hours in at least three locations and the wounded included 10 policemen, while the remainder were civilians, said Governor Tooryalai Wesa, who escaped unharmed.
Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, has been the focus of military operations over the past year. U.S. and NATO commanders have said they have made some security gains, but those successes are not yet entrenched.
Violence across Afghanistan reached its worst levels in 2010 since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict.
Panic swept Kandahar as the fighting erupted. People ran through the streets in search of safety and shopkeepers closed their doors for fear of looting. Witnesses said the city had been completely closed off.
“The city is in lockdown, you can hear gunshots around the city. People and our children are so scared ... we are worried about what to do,” said Kandahar resident Abdul Qadir.
President Hamid Karzai, on an official trip to Turkey, issued a statement condemning the attacks. Despite comments to the contrary by the Taliban, Karzai said the militants were trying to avenge the death of their ally, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban last week announced the start of their “spring offensive”, vowing to increase attacks on foreign troops and Afghan government officials. Those threats were reissued after the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan on Monday.
A Taliban spokesman said the militant group was responsible for the Kandahar attacks, but they were unrelated to bin Laden.
“A number of fighters are in several locations around the city. These are not retaliatory attacks for the death of Osama bin Laden but are part of our spring offensive,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Reuters from an undisclosed location.
Last month, hundreds of prisoners, mostly insurgents, escaped from a jail in Kandahar through a tunnel dug by Taliban militants. A spokesman for Karzai described the escape as a “disaster” for the government.
The Taliban’s Ahmadi said escapees from that jailbreak were among hundreds of fighters involved in the attacks.
It was not possible to verify independently the number of militants who took part in the attacks, and the Taliban often exaggerate their claims.
The Taliban have managed to carry out a number of high-profile attacks inside Kandahar and in the capital Kabul over the past year despite Afghan and foreign forces beefing up security around both cities.
The Taliban issued a statement late on Friday expressing their condolences over the death of bin Laden but said this would only revive their fight in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; writing by Jonathon Burch and Rob Taylor; editing by Mark Heinrich