Tuesday, May 12, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Eleven Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings Tuesday in a bold daylong assault in eastern Afghanistan, sparking running gun battles with U.S. and Afghan forces that killed 20 people and wounded three Americans, officials said.

Troops freed 20 hostages taken by insurgents.

The battle in Khost, a border city that houses a major American base, came as the United States made leadership changes that demonstrate a clear break from Bush-era appointees, with President Obama taking charge of an increasingly bloody eight-year war that the Pentagon once believed had been won.

New U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general, presented his credentials to President Hamid Karzai in the capital. On Monday, the war’s top U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan, was replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been a leader of special forces.

Tuesday’s assault began around 10 a.m., when a suicide bomber in a burqa attacked the governor’s compound in Khost. That was followed by a suicide car bombing, said Wazir Pacha, the spokesman for the provincial police chief.

Khost residents hid from explosions and gunbattles that lasted until 5 p.m. Twenty people were taken hostage. At least 11 insurgents and nine other people, including police and civilians, died, the Defense Ministry said.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that 30 suicide bombers had attacked the government buildings.

Teams of Taliban militants have launched multipronged assaults on government centers in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand’s capital in the past year, demonstrating an increasing sophistication in their attacks. Military analysts have said such attacks are a result of training by Pakistani militants and al Qaeda fighters.

After the first explosions Tuesday, U.S. forces attending a nearby meeting responded to the attacks and killed an unknown number of militants, said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

“When the explosion occurred at the governor’s compound, they responded and they were engaged with small-arms fire,” said U.S. military spokesman Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo.

A team of six suicide bombers tried to attack the nearby police headquarters, but were rebuffed by security forces and entered a neighboring municipal building, Mr. Pacha said.

Three bombers detonated their explosives, the Interior Ministry said, while other militants took 20 city employees hostage, Mr. Pacha said.

A second U.S. team was sent from the nearby American base, Camp Salerno. But those troops were fired on en route, Chief Petty Officer Naranjo said. A U.S. soldier and an Afghan policeman were wounded and taken to Camp Salerno, where they were in stable condition, he said. A number of militants were killed, he said.

“Since that initial attack, there have been more attacks in Khost. A lot of stuff is going on right now,” Chief Petty Officer Naranjo said during the middle of the battle.

After the militants entered the municipal building, a number of explosions reverberated from within as U.S. and Afghan forces surrounded the area.

U.S. and Afghan forces later stormed the building, freed 20 hostages and killed three insurgents, Mr. Pacha said.

The Obama administration hopes the leadership shakeup will help reverse the militants’ momentum. Taliban and other insurgent fighters have increased their attacks the last three years and now control wide swaths of territory.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, listed three priorities for Gen. McChrystal: “Prevent civilian casualties, strengthen the quality and quantity of Afghan forces, and focus more on coordinating the military operations with Afghan forces.”

As Gen. McKiernan leaves, more than 21,000 additional U.S. forces are arriving in Afghanistan — dispatched by Mr. Obama to confront the Taliban more forcefully. A record 38,000 U.S. troops are already in the country.

Mr. Eikenberry replaced William Wood, who was appointed by President George W. Bush amid hopes he could help curtail the country’s booming opium poppy trade. Mr. Eikenberry has served two tours in Afghanistan and was the senior U.S. commander as recently as 2007. He said it was “wonderful to be back in Afghanistan among my many friends.”

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.

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