x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Taliban suicide squad hits UK centre in Afghanistan, 13 killed

A Taliban suicide squad attacks a British cultural centre in Kabul on the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain. Thirteen are killed, 16 wounded.

KABUL // The Taliban launched a complex suicide attack against the British cultural centre in Kabul yesterday, leaving 13 people dead in an assault on the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain. Four of the dead were the attackers.

"The goal of this attack was to remind the British that as your grandfathers were defeated on the same day in Afghanistan, you will also be followed, attacked and defeated," the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told The National in a phone interview yesterday.

The United Kingdom keeps about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UK ministry of defence says. Four British nationals and one South African staying at the British Council, a charity linked to the UK government which funds educational projects in Afghanistan, were evacuated safely, William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, said yesterday.

A government spokesman said five Afghan policemen, three Nepalese security guards and one ISAF member were killed in the attack and that 16 others were wounded. The assault featured car bombs and gunmen armed with suicide vests and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the Afghan interior ministry. It took Afghan security nine hours to kill the last of the insurgents.

Two British women, both teachers, hid in a safe room inside the building throughout the ordeal, according to Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council.

"Clearly, they are deeply shocked. They were inside the compound for a very long period of time," Mr Davidson said.

ISAF, which dispatched troops to the scene, said in a press release that at least one of its members "died following an insurgent attack in Kabul." At about 1.45pm local time, two ISAF helicopters had landed on a street close to the compound, witnesses said.

The assault began at about 6am when an insurgent driving an explosives-laden Mazda truck detonated at the gates of the council building. A second car carrying three more insurgents and more explosives then entered the compound, where the gunmen left the car and set off its bomb by remote control, both the Taliban and the interior ministry said.

The militants stormed the compound and a nine-hour-long gun battle with Afghan troops and police resulted.

Glass from windows blown out in neighbouring buildings littered the streets and pavement near the compound as sprays of gunfire rang out over the area.

A black plume of smoke could be seen rising from the British Council building into the afternoon, while the charred remains of one of the cars lay tangled in the street.

Just after 3pm, Afghan security forces killed the last gunmen holed up in a fortified bunker.

Mr Patey said the standoff lasted so long because Afghan security forces had to clear the council room by room.

Security for Kabul province was officially transitioned to Afghan forces last month, but there are serious doubts about the ability of Afghan troops to effectively battle insurgents.

There have been a string of Taliban attacks across Afghanistan but also in Kabul in recent months.

In June, nine suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 10 in a six-hour gun battle with Afghan and ISAF troops.

Last month, insurgents stormed the home of a former governor and aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jan Mohammed Khan, killing him and a member of parliament.

"It is a big shame for [Afghan] security forces that there is this kind of attack on our independence day," Major Abdul Rahman Shahid, an Afghan MP, said.

The walled compound of the British Council, first established in Afghanistan in 1964, is in an upscale residential area.

It consists of two buildings, one is a two-story building and the other is a single-story structure. The attack came on the same day that Afghans celebrated Independence Day, marking the day the country achieved full independence from Britain in 1919.

The assault indicates a growing sophistication among Taliban insurgents, analysts say, where targets are picked for their symbolism and psychological effect.

Daoud Sultanzoy, a former MP who was educated in the west, says the date is crucial to modern Afghan history and "resonates with the masses."

"This attack, it shows that the Taliban are not just operating on a whim anymore," Mr Sultanzoy said.

"There is clearly thoughtful engineering behind it. They are giving sentimental historical context to the attack. They are manipulating. They are very astute."

Mr Sultanzoy said before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan 1979, Afghan independence day was marked by festivities and games.

"There were days of extravagant celebrations, with camps erected and concerts," Mr Sultanzoy said. "Now it's about fighting and winning wars against foreigners. We need to talk about what independence means after we get it."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae