- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan security forces on Sunday surrounded a small group of insurgents who barricaded themselves inside a hotel on the second day of clashes in the southern city of Kandahar, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The estimated two or three fighters holed up in the Kandahar Hotel were all that remained of a Taliban force that on Saturday unleashed a major assault on government buildings across the city.

Spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the firefight broke out when security forces began to clear the hotel, which is located next to the intelligence agency headquarters and a police station. The hotel was used to stage Saturday’s daylong attacks against the two buildings. Troops were being cautious because most of the insurgents were believed to be wearing suicide vests, he said.

NATO troops and helicopters could be seen supporting Afghan forces in the clash. Security forces apparently were waiting for the militants to run out of ammunition.

Fighting stopped overnight after Afghan forces secured the government buildings that had been attacked, Mr. Bashary added, although sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard around the city.

So far, he said, a total of 23 attackers had been killed as well as two members of the security forces. Another 40 people were wounded. Of the dead attackers, eight detonated their suicide vests. Security forces captured another four, Mr. Bashary added.

The size and scope of the attack, which began at noon Saturday, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a yearlong campaign to secure Afghanistan’s south and Kandahar in particular. The city was the birthplace of the Taliban and is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed that more than 100 fighters took part and said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city. It was the most ambitious attack since the insurgents declared the start of a spring offensive last month against NATO and Afghan troops.

Mr. Bashary said government forces had cleared and secured all the buildings attacked, including the governor’s office, the intelligence agency and the police station, among others.

“Except for the Kandahar Hotel, all other places have been cleared by the Afghan forces,” Mr. Bashary told reporters in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

He added that nearly all the insurgents killed so far had escaped late last month from Kandahar city’s main Sarposa Prison. More than 480 militants escaped through a 900-foot-long tunnel that took five months to dig.

Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said the insurgents did not have the ability disrupt life in Kandahar.

“Their aim and goal is just to show their presence in this region. They just want to frighten the people of Kandahar and disrupt their business, but they will not succeed this time. They will fail; they should understand this and join us to live in peace,” Mr. Wesa said.

The Kandahar city attacks came a day after the Taliban said Osama bin Laden’s death only would serve to boost morale, but a militant spokesman insisted the Kandahar attack had been in the works for months before the al Qaeda leader was killed by American commandos on Monday.

Government officials said they had no accurate estimate of how many attackers were involved, but NATO estimated 40 to 60 militants took part.

The Taliban usually exaggerates the scale of its attacks, and it is unlikely to have the strength or the numbers to take over the city. NATO said the insurgents did not control any part of Kandahar city on Saturday.

The attack, however, shows the determination of the insurgency in the face of a massive international push to remove the Taliban permanently from the city that was once its capital.

Mr. Wesa cautioned that the Taliban should not be underestimated.

“The Taliban have strength, and they are also helped by other countries, so we should not deny this fact. But we can say that our forces can defeat them and can stand against them in every battle,” Mr. Wesa said, referring to Taliban safe havens in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.

The persistent violence has complicated the situation for the United States and many NATO allies who are hoping to pull out their troops. President Obama wants to start drawing down forces in July, and the alliance has committed itself to handing over control of security in the country to Afghans by 2014.

In another development, NATO said it had seized more than six tons of hashish during an operations against insurgents in Kandahar province’s Panjwai and Zhari district.

The drugs were found in three caches along with 350 pounds of explosives, bomb-making material and pressure plates used to activate roadside mines. Drugs, especially opium grown in the area, are used by the Taliban to fund their operations. The opium harvesting season is under way in many parts of Afghanistan.

Rahim Faiez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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