- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Taliban militants wearing explosive vests launched a brazen daylight assault Monday on the center of Kabul, with suicide bombings and gunbattles near the presidential palace and other government buildings that paralyzed the city for hours.

Afghan forces along with NATO advisers managed to restore order after nearly five hours of fighting as explosions and machine gun fire echoed across the mountain-rimmed city, sending terrified Afghans racing for cover. Twelve people were killed, including seven attackers, officials said.

The assault by a handful of determined militants dramatized the vulnerability of the Afghan capital, undermining public confidence in President Hamid Karzai’s government and its U.S.-led allies.

The attacks also suggested that the mostly rural Taliban are prepared to strike at the heart of the Afghan state — even as the United States and its international partners are rushing 37,000 reinforcements to join the eight-year-old war.

The violence began shortly before 10 a.m. and ended about five hours later after attacks at four locations within an area of less than one square mile. The area, in the center of the capital, is a mix of government buildings surrounded by concrete walls, shops and hotels.

In the first assault, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at Pashtunistan Square, a major intersection near the gates to the presidential palace, the Central Bank and the luxury Serena Hotel, which is frequented by Westerners.

Clashes broke out as other militants fought with Afghan troops, who converged quickly on the scene in pickup trucks and armored vehicles. Police sealed off the area and helicopters buzzed overhead.

Several attackers then stormed into a nearby shopping mall, prompting a standoff with security forces. Two bombers were killed when their explosives detonated, setting the four-story building ablaze.

About 11:17 a.m., another suicide attacker drove toward the area in an ambulance but blew himself up after he was stopped at a checkpoint near the Education Ministry.

Three other attackers entered another commercial building housing offices at 1 p.m., holding off security forces for about two hours before they were killed.

The details were provided by Interior Minister Hanif Atmar at a press conference and contradicted previous accounts given amid the chaos.

It was the biggest assault on the capital since Oct. 28, when gunmen with automatic weapons and suicide vests stormed a guest house used by U.N. staff, killing at least 11 people including five U.N. staffers. Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen also struck government buildings in the capital in February 2009, killing at least 20 people.

In Monday’s attack, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the Associated Press that 20 armed militants, including some with suicide vests, had entered Kabul to target the presidential palace and other government buildings in the center of the capital. The Defense Ministry said seven militants were killed but that it was possible others were burned in the shopping center blaze.

An intelligence agent was killed, along with two policemen and two civilians, including one child, according to Mr. Atmar. He said 71 other people were wounded, including 35 civilians.

The attack unfolded as Cabinet members were being sworn in by President Hamid Karzai despite the rejection by parliament of the majority of his choices. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said the ceremony had occurred as scheduled, and everybody in the palace was safe.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban fighters behind the attack were part of a set of extremist groups operating in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“They are desperate people; they are ruthless,” he said from New Delhi after a trip to Afghanistan.

U.S. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, blamed the Haqqani network, an al Qaeda-linked Afghan Taliban faction based in Pakistan. The group also was believed to be linked to the Dec. 30 suicide bombing at a remote CIA base that killed seven of the agency’s employees in Afghanistan’s Khost province.

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