By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A06
KABUL -- A small but determined squad of at least seven attackers laid siege to the heart of the Afghan capital Monday morning, detonating explosives, hurling grenades and engaging in a fierce four-hour gun battle with security forces in one of the most brazen insurgent assaults on Kabul in at least a year.
The attacks left two civilians and five members of the Afghan security forces dead and 71 people wounded, 35 of them civilians, according to senior Afghan security officials. The officials said most of the injuries were caused by grenade blasts. All seven assailants died in the assaults.
The siege once again highlighted the vulnerability of Kabul, where bombings and other attacks have become relatively common.
Afghan police, with the backing of the Afghan National Army, are responsible for security in the capital. But the training of Afghan security forces, here and throughout the country, remains a major concern for U.S. and NATO officials.
After the attacks ended Monday, the police seemed at times overwhelmed by the crowds of onlookers as they pushed to get closer to the scene. At one point, nervous policemen began firing volleys from automatic weapons in the air and aiming weapons directly at the onlookers to push them back. A plainclothes police officer angrily waved his pistol at a crowd of journalists and pointed it at the head of an American photographer who he thought was standing too close to a barricade.
A spokesman for the Taliban, in e-mail messages to news outlets, claimed responsibility for the assault. He said government ministries, the central bank and the presidential palace were among the targets.
The siege began at 9:50 a.m. when the first attacker blew himself up at a traffic circle not far from the heavily fortified presidential palace, where President Hamid Karzai was preparing to swear in 14 members of his cabinet.
About five minutes after that explosion, a band of three more attackers, concealing their weapons and explosives vests under heavy gray shawls, stormed into a shopping complex directly across a narrow street from the Justice Ministry, witnesses said. When a mall security guard confronted them, they opened their shawls to reveal their weapons and bombs, told him to get everyone out, and then raced to the top floor of the building.
"I was in my shop on the second floor. Three suicide bombers got in, but they went up to the very top floor," said Haji Abdul Ghafoor, 66, who had a clothing store in the mall. "The watchman started shouting for everybody to run away. . . . There was panic inside the building. Everybody was running. About five minutes later, the gunfire started."
A carpet seller in the mall, Shafiur Rahman Shinwari, 32, said he and about 25 other shopkeepers bolted themselves in the basement while the mayhem swirled above them. "I told every shopkeeper just keep quiet; turn off your cellphone," he said later. "If any cellphone rings, they'll know we are here."
"There was gunfire, there were grenades, it was like death," Shinwari said. After more than three hours, they were nearly overcome by the heat and smoke before they were rescued by security forces. "It was too hot, and because of the smoke, everybody was coughing," he said.
According to the government version of events, one of the three attackers at the mall then got into an ambulance and drove to the traffic circle by the Education Ministry, with a shawl covering his right hand, which was resting on a detonation switch. When he was stopped by police, "he got out of the ambulance and blew himself up," said Amrullah Saleh, the director of the Afghan government's National Directorate of Security, the intelligence service.
After the shopping mall was retaken, three militants holed up in a building next to a movie theater, setting off a battle with security forces there.
Afghan officials said the Taliban was trying to target civilians in the assault. "This kind of attack shows the weakness of the enemy," Saleh said. "It shows the terrorists have lost their ability to fight face to face. They are using terrorist activities and hurting innocent civilians."
Afghan officials praised the rapid response of security forces, which they said prevented further casualties, and they hinted that the attackers had come from across the border, without naming Pakistan.
By Monday night, the capital resembled an armed camp, with most of the center of the city closed off. Afghan police, soldiers and NATO forces were positioned at intersections and on rooftops, and businesses in the heart of the city shuttered.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.