Taliban Fighters Strike in Kabul, Killing at Least 20

By Javed Hamdard, Pamela Constable and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 12, 2009

KABUL, Feb. 11 -- A trio of closely coordinated attacks left at least 20 people dead and 54 wounded in the Afghan capital Wednesday morning, after separate teams of gunmen and bombers targeted two downtown government ministries and a corrections administration office in the suburbs. The attacks created panic in the crowded city center until security forces were able to restore control after a four-hour battle.

All eight attackers were also killed.

It was the worst violence in Kabul since July, when a suicide bomber destroyed the Indian Embassy, killing more than 60 people. Analysts said the audacious assaults seemed timed to test the resolve of Afghan and U.S. officials as the Obama administration debates a new strategy for Afghanistan and its recently named special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, is scheduled to visit this week.

A spokesman for the Islamist Taliban insurgency asserted responsibility for the attacks, telling the Associated Press they were in response to the poor treatment of prisoners in Afghan custody. The revived militia has been waging a brutal campaign of violence and intimidation against the Afghan government and what it calls the "foreign occupation" by U.S. and NATO forces.

In the past year, more than 4,000 people have died in insurgent-related violence, and there have been a dozen major attacks by suicide bombers against military and civilian targets in the Kabul region since March. The capital is heavily guarded, with blast barriers on many streets and police patrolling everywhere, but residents describe a rapidly deteriorating sense of security.

The Obama administration is gearing up to send as many as 30,000 fresh troops to Afghanistan in coming months, nearly doubling the number stationed there in a major effort to quell the insurgency, win over the populace and bring stability to the country. But there has been increasing friction between the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has denounced U.S. bombings of villages where insurgents may be hiding, and who has threatened to turn to Russia for support.

In Kabul, the most dramatic scenes unfolded at the Justice Ministry. Employees cowered in their locked offices as gunfire erupted, and crowds fled in the surrounding, traffic-clogged streets.

Officials said five men armed with guns and suicide vests killed one guard at the entrance, then entered and began firing on guards and employees throughout the four-story building. Witnesses said some people jumped from upper floors to escape.

Although the death toll was much lower, many people here immediately compared the attack to the terrorist siege in the Indian city of Mumbai in November, when a highly trained squad of attackers entered the port city by boat and wreaked havoc for three days, striking at luxury hotels and other buildings and killing more than 170 people.

Afghan officials pointed to Pakistan as the source of Wednesday's violence. Intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh told journalists the attackers had sent cellphone messages to Pakistan just as they entered the Justice Ministry, "calling for the blessing of their mastermind." Other reports said some witnesses had overheard several of the attackers speaking Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Indian officials have also blamed the Mumbai assault on groups based in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, said he had not seen Saleh's remarks and could not comment.

While the reconstituted Taliban insurgents have been stepping up their war against the Afghan government since 2006, other Islamist militant groups have been waging a similar campaign in the border areas of neighboring Pakistan, and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed Pakistani religious groups and intelligence agencies for fomenting the violence.

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