KABUL, Jan 18: Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked buildings across the heart of Kabul on Monday, triggering fierce gunbattles with security forces and killing at least five people, including a child.
Fires raged after two shopping centres, a cinema and the only five-star hotel in the Afghan capital were targeted by heavily armed militants who set off a wave of explosions apparently targeting nearby government buildings.
Five people were killed and 71 wounded, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said, in the most dramatic strike on Kabul since militants laid siege to government buildings in February 2009, killing at least 26 people.
Mr Atmar said a child and security forces personnel were among the dead, while seven militants were also killed.
“They were killed either by detonating themselves or they were shot by security forces,” he told reporters of the militants.
President Hamid Karzai said the situation was ‘under control’ after more than three hours of fighting and explosions, which came as he was swearing in new cabinet ministers inside the presidential palace.
“The enemies of the Afghan people conducted a series of attacks today, causing fear and terror among the population,” Mr Karzai said in a statement. “The president condemns these terrorist attacks.”
The attacks began at the peak of morning rush hour, when suicide bombers stormed buildings around Pashtunistan Square, setting off explosions that sent clouds of black smoke into the sky and people fleeing in terror.
Mr Atmar said a suicide bomber was challenged by a security agent in front of the central bank at 9.50am (0520 GMT) and he “immediately blew himself up”.
By 11am security forces had moved into key positions, Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told the same press conference.
“At 11.17am a suicide bomber driving an ambulance was stopped by Afghan security forces and detonated himself,” he said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility.
“Twenty of our suicide bombers have entered the area and fighting is ongoing,” a man calling himself Zabihullah Mujahid, who said he was a Taliban spokesman, told AFP.
He said the presidential palace and ministries around Pashtunistan Square were the targets, but it appeared that government buildings had not been breached and civilian gathering places bore the brunt.
Smoke billowed from the Qari Sami shopping mall on the square, a five-storey building that used to be the Bamiyan Hotel and one of the buildings in the Serena Hotel, the city’s only five-star hotel.
“I saw four people wrapped up in patus (blankets) coming and the guard went forward and asked them ‘what are you doing’,” said local grocer Ismail, who was in his shop in one of the malls when militants stormed in.
“One of them opened his patu and showed the guard a suicide vest packed with explosives and said to him, ‘get out of my way or you’ll die’.”
Militants blockaded themselves inside the nearby Ariana Cinema and shot at security forces, who struggled to secure the building.
The head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security (NDS), Amrullah Saleh, said militants took two children hostage but later freed them after negotiations.—AFP