Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Suicide Attackers Storm Kabul Offices, Killing 19

KABUL, Afghanistan — Attackers firing automatic rifles and wearing explosive vests stormed the Justice Ministry in central Kabul on Wednesday while others burst into another government building in the north of the city, triggering chaos as ministry workers fled, witnesses said.

At least 19 people were killed and 54 wounded in the coordinated attacks, the ministry of public health said. Eight attackers also died, the authorities said. The Taliban took responsibility for the assaults.

Coming on the eve of a scheduled visit by Richard C. Holbrooke, President’s Obama’s newly appointed special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the attacks displayed the apparent ease with which Taliban insurgents who control much of the Afghan countryside can also breach the defenses of the heavily-fortified capital.

That, in turn, underlined the severity of the challenge facing American policy-makers who have declared the war in Afghanistan a high priority for the new administration in Washington and who plan to almost double American troops levels with the deployment of some 30,000 additional soldiers.

In one incident on Wednesday, assailants stormed into the Justice Ministry in central Kabul. In another at around the same time, suicide bombers blew themselves up at the ministry’s corrections department in northern Kabul, according to Gen. Mohammad Arif, a senior officer in the prisons service.

The Taliban claimed that several other suicide bombers may still be at large in the city.

Police officials said five gunmen wearing suicide vests burst into the Justice Ministry, shot dead an official at the entrance and then spread out into the building. The police initially said all of them were killed by Afghan intelligence officers who entered the building in pursuit.

Hours after the attack, the police said they believed one assailant had been cornered in the ministry but security forces were unable to move in further because children were trapped at a kindergarten inside the building.

But, after a gun battle in which 60 shots were fired, the police said that the attacker had been killed.

By mid-morning in Kabul, the police said, explosives experts were trying to defuse the explosive vests on the bodies of dead attackers. In tallying the dead, it was nt immediately clear where the bulk of the killing had happened.

“There’s chaos on all four floors,” Habib Mushakhas, a senior ministry official, said after he was evacuated from the building. “I heard an explosion, then a firefight. There was a lot of blood in the corridors. I saw one dead body.”

At one point in the melée, Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh told The Associated Press by mobile telephone that he was holed up in the building, where a number of gunmen were also hiding.

“There is still fighting. They used grenades and AK-47s,” Mr. Danesh said. “There are workers still inside the building in their offices,” the A.P. reported.

At around the same time as the assault on the ministry, gunmen attacked the Justice Ministry’s corrections department in northern Kabul, the authorities said.

“Suicide bombers armed with assault rifles tried to storm inside the building but faced resistance from our security guards,” General Arif, the senior prisons department officer, said. “One of the suicide bombers succeeded to enter the ground floor and blew himself up in the lobby, where we are teaching police officers. The other suicide bomber blew himself up outside the building.”

Sabawoon Gulzay, 22, a student who witnessed the attack, said he saw two people with assault rifles attacking security guards at the government building.

“I was very afraid,” he said. He ran back into his house and heard two loud explosions which shattered all the windows of his home.

Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said the militants sent 16 suicide attackers into Kabul and five of them entered the Justice Ministry. The whereabouts of the others was not immediately clear. “Five of them entered the ministry and the others are around Kabul,” the spokesman said.