- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan

Taliban gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked three Afghan government buildings Wednesday in a coordinated assault that killed 20 people in the heart of Kabul just ahead of a planned visit from the new U.S. envoy to the region.

The attacks in a city dense with barricades and armed guards underscored the difficulty of fending off the Taliban even with abundant troops and weaponry as the U.S. beefs up its presence.

The eight assailants sent three text messages to the leader of their terror cell in Pakistan before launching Wednesday’s assault, said Amrullah Saleh, chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, underlining the links between militants in the two countries.

Five men armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked the Justice Ministry in late morning, shooting at workers and temporarily trapping the minister and scores of others inside, witnesses said. The gunmen appeared to hold the building for about two hours before Afghan security forces regained control about midday, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene.

At about the same time, two men in suicide vests blew themselves up at the ministry’s correction department across town. A third assailant in a suicide vest was shot as he tried to force his way into the Education Ministry, about a half-mile from the Justice Ministry attack, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

At least 20 people were killed in the attacks and 57 wounded, said Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the interior minister. All eight attackers died, Gen. Azimi said, bringing the total death toll to 28.

Zabiullah Mujaheed, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the attacks were in response to the purported mistreatment of Taliban prisoners in Afghan jails.

The Taliban regularly use suicide bombings in their assaults on Afghan and foreign troops, but attackers have rarely made it inside the barricaded and guarded compounds of government buildings in the capital.

Elsewhere, in Logar, a province south of Kabul, a roadside bomb exploded near a French military medical team’s convoy, killing one French officer and two Afghans, said Den Mohammad Durwesh, the governor’s spokesman. The French government said another soldier was seriously injured.

Also in Logar, a helicopter with the U.S.-backed coalition killed five civilians as it responded to ground fire, Mr. Durwesh said. U.S. spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.

The attack comes as Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama’s newly appointed envoy to the region, is expected imminently in Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan.

Mr. Obama has vowed to increase U.S. focus on the resurgent Taliban, including sending more troops and designating Mr. Holbrooke, who is helping the administration chart a new strategy to beat the insurgencies raging in both countries.

In Pakistan on Wednesday, a bomb killed a secular lawmaker in Peshawar, a key city near the Afghan border, as Mr. Holbrooke was in town.

Mr. Obama spoke by phone with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday, their first contact since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, Mr. Zardari’s office said.

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