Afghan, NATO forces repel Taliban attacks on Kandahar
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban unleashed a major assault yesterday on government buildings throughout Afghanistan’s main southern city, an attack that cast doubt on how successful the US-led coalition has been in its nearly yearlong military campaign to establish security and stability in the former Taliban stronghold.
The Taliban said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city, making the strike the most ambitious of a series of recent high-profile attacks on government installations. The attack came a day after the Islamic movement said Osama bin Laden’s death would only serve to boost morale, but a Taliban spokesman insisted it had been in the works for months before the Al Qaeda leader was killed by American commandos Monday.
Shooting started shortly after midday and lasted more than seven hours, while government forces were backed by military helicopters firing from overhead.
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.
The assailants included at least five suicide car bombers, three of whom were stopped by police before their explosives could go off, NATO forces said in a statement. In the end, none of the assaulted compounds was breached by the militants, NATO said.
The attackers at the governor’s compound were finally pushed back around nightfall, and Governor Tooryalai Wesa called reporters in for a press conference at his reclaimed office while fighting continued at the intelligence agency a little more than a mile away. Heavy gunfire finally died down across the city around 8:30 p.m., though sporadic shooting continued in the area around the intelligence agency.
At least one police officer and one civilian were killed and 20 other people wounded in the assaults, Governor Tooryalai Wesa told reporters, adding that the death toll was likely to rise as troops searched the area.
He said six Taliban fighters have been killed.
Provincial government spokesman Zalmai Ayubi confirmed at least six assault locations — the three government buildings and the police stations. A statement from the president’s office said two high schools had also been attacked.
The Taliban said more than 100 militants flooded into the city — including many escaped convicts who had been freed in a bold 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,’’ Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said by phone.
The Taliban usually exaggerate the scale of their attacks, and it is unlikely the movement would have the strength or the numbers to take over Kandahar. A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to let the Afghan government make official statements, said the insurgents did not control any part of the city during yesterday’s assaults.
But yesterday’s 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 the United States and many NATO allies who are hoping to pull out troops. President Obama wants to start drawing down forces in July, and the alliance has committed to handing over control of security in the country to Afghans by 2014.
President Hamid Karzai expressed belief the attack was an effort to avenge bin Laden’s death and called it reprehensible.
“Al Qaeda 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,’’ Karzai said in the statement.