KABUL // At least 17 people were killed and more than 30 wounded when insurgents staged a co- ordinated assault on the heart of Afghanistan's capital, yesterday. The attack began at around 6.30am and continued for a number of hours afterwards, with frequent exchanges of gunfire between the attackers and security forces.
Nine Indians, an Italian diplomatic adviser, a French filmmaker and two Afghan policeman were reported to be among the dead, while buildings in Kabul's heavily fortified Shar-e-Naw neighbourhood were left in smouldering ruins. The long-term impact could be just as serious, however, as it will inevitably raise fresh doubts about the ability of Nato to wrest momentum back from the Taliban at a crucial stage in the war.
"We don't know the meaning of security in Afghanistan," said Badam Gul, a local restaurant worker. The attack staged by between three and five militants commenced with a massive car bombing soon after dawn. The explosion shattered shop fronts and broke windows hundreds of metres away, and left a large crater in the ground. Hours later there was still chaos as Afghan soldiers, police, counter-terrorism units and intelligence agents struggled to regain control of the area from at least one insurgent who remained alive.
Meanwhile, a man covered in blood and another civilian caked in dust were stretchered away. A severed leg and chunks of human flesh were also taken from the scene. The targets of the attack appear to have been the Aria and Park Residence guesthouses. A nearby shopping centre and an adjoining luxury hotel popular with foreigners were also badly damaged. The carnage comes in the wake of a major offensive in the south of the country and the arrest in Pakistan of a senior Taliban leader: two events that had been portrayed as potential turning points for the Nato effort here.
Amir Mohammed, the manager of a guesthouse that was not directly targeted, claimed he had found a bag of hand grenades lying in the street outside earlier in the morning. "The Taliban and al Qa'eda are responsible," he said. "But we are also wondering how they can reach here because they do not come from the sky." His colleague, Ghulam Dastagir, 19, agreed. Mr Dastagir had just started work when the shock wave from the first explosion knocked him to the ground.
"Look, Shar-e-Naw is the heart of Kabul because it's the main market for Afghans and our international guests, but the Taliban can still come here. They are very strong," he said. A Taliban spokesman confirmed the militants had carried out the attack. In a phone call to the Reuters news agency, Zabihullah Mujahid said that at least five Taliban fighters had taken part; two suicide bombers and three gunmen.
Kabul was in lockdown as the fighting continued during the morning, with a number of roads blocked off throughout the capital. It is a scene that has become worryingly familiar. Although the capital has been relatively calm of late, last month militants staged another well co-ordinated assault here, causing panic and leaving at least five people dead. Foreigners in Kabul have also been deliberately targeted in high-profile attacks before. In October, UN election workers were killed when their guesthouse was hit by insurgents, and suicide car bombers have blown themselves up at the Indian Embassy twice in recent years.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, condemned the latest bloodshed. "Those who are involved and carried out inhumane and un-Islamic attacks on a holy day that is the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed are certainly enemies of Islam and Afghanistan," he said. The Italian killed yesterday was Pietro Antonio Colazzo, who served as diplomatic adviser to the office of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister. He was shot dead by a gunman while giving information over the phone to police about the position of the militants.
The Frenchman was Severin Blanchet, who had just arrived on his latest trip to the country having previously set-up a studio for young Afghan directors. "I don't know who was responsible but the people say they are terrorists and Taliban," said Abdul Malik, 22, who was watching events unfold from a nearby park. "The main reason for this is because we have a lot of foreign soldiers. If we did not have those soldiers [in Afghanistan] we would not have this fighting."
Under plans recently agreed at a major international conference, security in the country is due to be gradually handed over to Afghan forces beginning later this year. However, yesterday's assault again underlines the challenges ahead. At least one small unit of international troops was called in while the fighting was going on and questions are already being asked as to how the insurgents could again cause such havoc in the heart of Kabul.
Daoud Mohammedi, a tea vendor, summed up the suspicions of many when he said: "It's impossible for them to come here without links and connections inside the government." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org