x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Taliban launch attack on Kandahar

Ten explosions, including six suicide blasts, two car bombs and two rickshaw bombs, rock the city.

Afghan soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar yesterday after Taliban militants launched a multi-pronged attack on government installations. I Sameem / EPA
Afghan soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar yesterday after Taliban militants launched a multi-pronged attack on government installations. I Sameem / EPA

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan // The Taliban unleashed a major assault yesterday on government buildings throughout Afghanistan's main southern city.

The militants said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city, making the strike the most ambitious of recent high-profile attacks on government installations.

The attack came a day after the Islamist movement said Osama bin Laden's death would serve only to boost morale, but a Taliban spokesman said it had been in the works for months before the al Qa'eda leader was killed by American commandos on Monday.

US officials yesterday released videos seized in the raid showing bin Laden in his hideout, watching himself on television and rehearsing for propaganda broadcasts.

Yesterday's violence began about 1pm when militants with guns and rocket-propelled grenades found cover in nearby buildings and attacked the governor's office. Ten explosions, including six suicide blasts, two car bombs and two rickshaw bombs, rocked the city.

At least eight locations were attacked: the governor's compound, the mayor's office, the intelligence agency headquarters, three police stations and two high schools, according to government officials. In response, government forces were backed by military helicopters firing from overhead.

The attackers at the governor's compound were pushed back around nightfall and Gov Tooryalai Wesa called a press conference at his reclaimed office while fighting continued at the intelligence agency a little more than a kilometre away.

At least one police officer and one civilian were killed and 20 other people wounded in the assaults and the death toll was likely to rise as troops searched the area, Mr Wesa said. He said six Taliban fighters had also been killed.

The Taliban said more than 100 militants moved into the city, including many who had escaped during an audacious Taliban prison break last month. They were told to target any building used by the government or security forces.

"We are taking control of the entire city. We are at every corner," the Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said.

The Taliban usually exaggerate the scale of their attacks, and it is unlikely the movement would have the strength or the numbers actually to take over Kandahar. A Nato official said the insurgents had not controlled any part of the city during yesterday's assaults.

But the attack shows their resilience and determination in the face of a massive international push to remove them permanently from the city that was once their capital.

Government officials said they had no accurate estimate of how many attackers were involved.

The persistent violence has complicated the situation for US and many Nato allies who are hoping to pull out troops. The US president Barack Obama wants to start drawing down forces in July and the alliance has committed to handing over control of security to Afghans by 2014.

The Afghan president Hamid Karzai said he believed the attack was an effort to avenge bin Laden's death and called it reprehensible.

"Al Qa'eda terrorists have experienced a major defeat in the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and now to hide that defeat they are attacking Kandahar and killing civilians. They are trying to get their revenge from innocent Afghan people," Mr Karzai said.

He did not mention the Taliban by name.

Mr Ahmadi said the Kandahar plot had been in the works for months and was not a revenge attack for bin Laden's death. The Taliban have promised more large attacks as part of a spring offensive.

In Kabul, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence agency insisted security forces were still in command of the area. "The police are in control of Kandahar city," spokesman Latifullah Mashal said.

Residents did not appear convinced. Shopkeepers throughout the city closed and the streets emptied of people and cars as people bunkered down to wait out the fight.

"We were eating lunch when suddenly the shooting started," said 20-year-old Sayedullah, who lives in the city. "No one can go out because the fighting is still going on. The situation is very bad."

He said security forces had closed all the roads so he couldn't go outside if he wanted to.

Nato forces fought alongside Afghan troops at the governor's compound, Mr Ayubi said, but he did not say if Nato forces had entered the ground fight in substantial numbers.

A spokesman for Nato forces in Afghanistan, Sgt James Branch, said international troops were helping to provide security, but he would not provide further details.

Nato troops - most of them American - have poured into Kandahar over the past year as part of a plan to rout the Taliban from their southern strongholds and establish enough security to prevent them from returning with their usual force this spring. Nato has also helped to dramatically increase the number of police in Kandahar city and its environs, and offered them more training.

International military officials have said that the Taliban have now been significantly weakened by a winter of heavy fighting and by the loss of weapons caches.

But the Taliban have responded with assassinations, suicide bombers and attacks on high-profile officials. Last month they killed the Kandahar police chief in an attack launched from inside police headquarters, then sprung more than 480 inmates from the city's prison through a tunnel they had been digging for months.

The insurgent group has not limited itself to attacks in the south. They also launched deadly attacks recently from inside the Defence Ministry in Kabul and from inside a joint US-Afghan base in the east.

Nato officials said yesteday's attack did not mean their strategy in Kandahar was failing.

"We expected that the insurgents would try to re-infiltrate the places where they had free reign," coalition spokesman Lt Col John Dorrian said. "We do not see this as something that has any lasting or strategic impact."

* With reporting from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse