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Taliban launch attack on U.N. compound in western Afghanistan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 24, 2010; A12

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - The Taliban launched a midday assault on the United Nations headquarters in western Afghanistan on Saturday, crashing a car bomb into a compound gate to create an opening for suicide bombers disguised as women, according to U.N. and Afghan officials.

The attack was a startling reminder of the Taliban's readiness to strike at the symbols of foreign presence in Afghanistan, in this case a heavily fortified facility in the relatively peaceful city of Herat, near the Iranian border. Although two Afghan policemen were injured, the attack largely failed, as U.N. guards and Afghan security forces were able to kill the insurgents. No U.N. personnel were hurt.

A thinned-out weekend staff was manning the U.N. offices when the attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades at the compound just before noon and rammed a car bomb into the back gate, U.S. and Afghan officials said. At least three other insurgents, each hiding a suicide vest under a burqa, the head-to-toe cloak worn by many Afghan women, managed to get through the gate before being killed by either guards or police, the officials said.

"This is quite significant," one U.N. official said. "There was no such direct attack here, as far as I know, for a long time."

It was the most serious attack on a U.N. facility since October 2009, when insurgents stormed a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul and killed several members of the foreign staff there, prompting the mission to evacuate many employees, change housing arrangements and bolster security.

After Saturday's violence, the U.N. staff plans to relocate until its offices can be repaired and fortified but said operations in Herat will be unaffected.

"The United Nations will continue to maintain its presence and programs in Herat for the benefit of the population in need and in support of the Afghan authorities," the mission said in a statement.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a New York Times photographer, Joao Silva, suffered serious leg injuries Saturday when he stepped on a mine while on patrol with U.S. troops in Kandahar province's Arghandab River valley.

Silva, a veteran war photographer from Lisbon who lives in South Africa, was taken for treatment to Kandahar Airfield, the nearest large NATO military base, and was expected to be flown to Germany for further care.

The Arghandab valley is the site of one of the most important U.S. military efforts against the Taliban. The lush, scenic area has long been contested by the Taliban, and U.S. and Afghan forces have recently intensified their efforts there.

In an interview Friday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said of the Arghandab that "the bulk of it has been cleared" of insurgents, but added: "There's certainly still Taliban in there that have to be rooted out."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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