- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An alleged Taliban sleeper agent opened fire Monday inside the Defense Ministry, killing at least two soldiers before he was gunned down in the third deadly breach of security in Afghanistan in less than a week.

The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying a Taliban agent who was also an army officer planned the attack to coincide with a visit of the French defense minister, believed to be inside the compound. French officials said the minister, Gerard Longuet, was not inside the ministry during the attack.

Military officials said it was not immediately clear whether the assailant — who was wearing a vest rigged with explosives — was an enlisted soldier or an insurgent who had managed to slip past ministry security disguised in the military uniform. The vest did not explode.

“It is difficult to say at this time if he was an infiltrator or a real soldier,” said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman. “Many soldiers and officers come to the ministry daily to bring reports and perform their daily duties. An investigation is needed to find out if he was enlisted or not.”

It was the third deadly attack inside an Afghan or international installation in four days, giving weight to warnings that this year’s spring fighting season is likely to be particularly bloody.

On Saturday, an Afghan soldier working as a Taliban sleeper agent turned on his colleagues, killing five NATO service members, four Afghan soldiers and an interpreter. A day earlier, a suicide bomber dressed as a policeman blew himself up inside the Kandahar police headquarters complex, killing the top law enforcement officer in the restive southern province.

Insurgents long have disguised themselves in the uniforms of Afghan security forces to launch attacks. But increasingly over the past year, enlisted soldiers and police have turned on their NATO and Afghan colleagues — sometimes because arguments have inflamed tensions or because of an alliance or sympathy with the Taliban.

The turncoat attacks have come as Afghanistan ramps up recruitment of soldiers and policemen so they can take the lead in securing their nation by the end of 2014, adding more than 70,000 police and soldiers last year in an effort to reach 305,000 troopers by the end of this year.

These recruits are supposed to be vetted by past employers or at least village elders. Even with those policies in place, there’s often a dearth of information about new enlistees.

Monday’s shootout occurred at the door to the compound’s main office building, where the minister and other high-ranking officials have offices. The assailant began firing at soldiers at the door, killing two before being shot dead, Gen. Azimi said. He said there were no additional attackers.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the attacker was an army officer who had been in the service for at least three years and who was stationed at the Defense Ministry. He said he worked in concert with two accomplices, who have not been found out.

The Afghan Defense Ministry is well guarded, with at least three checkpoints stopping vehicles and people before they reach the main entrance. Soldiers are required to show identification to enter, and visitors must be confirmed by the people they’re meeting.

Mr. Longuet was not inside the ministry when the attack occurred, said Lt. Col. Eric de Lapresle, a spokesman for French forces in Afghanistan.

Gen. Azimi said that Mr. Longuet met with Defense Minister Rahim Wardak later in the day as scheduled, inside the Defense Ministry compound.

Mr. Longuet arrived Sunday and had been meeting with French troops in the east. Some 3,850 French troops are deployed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission.

French defense officials wouldn’t comment on the attack except to say Mr. Longuet wasn’t there at the time. “We don’t comment on Taliban declarations,” French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.

“We are always very vigilant with the measures of precaution taken” for travels in Afghanistan, he said.

France assures its Afghan partners of its “determination to remain committed at their sides in the fight against the plague of terrorism,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in an online briefing Monday.

The shooting comes the same day that a roadside bomb in eastern Ghazni province killed six policemen who were in a vehicle during a patrol in Jaghatu district, said provincial police Chief Gen. Zirawer Zahid.

All six policemen inside the vehicle were killed in the explosion, which occurred about 6 miles west of the provincial capital, Ghazni city, he said.

Elsewhere in the east, a protest against the arrest of a mullah in Parwan province turned violent with protesters and police shooting at each other, killing at least one person, officials said.

The demonstration started over the arrest of a local mullah overnight in Charikar, the provincial capital, said provincial police Chief Sher Ahmad Maladani. Armed men in the crowd started shooting, and police struggled to regain control, Chief Maladani said.

At least one man has been confirmed dead from the melee at the main hospital in Charikar, said Abdul Khalil Farhangi, the hospital’s director. He said most of the injuries are bullet wounds and five people were in comas. One police officer was among the wounded, along with three children, Mr. Farhangi said.

The mullah, Sayed Ahmad, was arrested by Afghan and NATO forces late Sunday along with two others, said Abdullah Adil, an Afghan police official who coordinates with NATO in Parwan.

The two others were released, but the mullah continued to be held Monday because of suspicions that he has links to insurgents, Mr. Adil said.

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