Afghan govt. compound attacked as vote looms

August 11, 2009 - 0:0

PUL-I-ALAM, Afghanistan (AFP) – Taliban armed with rockets and a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan government and police headquarters near Kabul on Monday, in an audacious assault 10 days before nationwide elections.

At least one Afghan policeman was killed in the brazen strike on compounds that sparked gunbattles in Pul-i-Alam, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Kabul, but no other casualties were immediately reported, officials said.
NATO troops were dispatched to the area to help Afghan forces repel the attack as frightened shopkeepers fled a nearby bazaar, some too panicked even to close their shops before running away, a witness told AFP.
Military helicopters flew overhead and one aircraft fired a rocket into a building under construction, where the assailants were believed holed up, as smoke was seen rising from the small town, an AFP journalist said.
The assault follows a series of coordinated Taliban attacks on provincial capitals and comes with Afghanistan straining under mounting violence in the run-up to August 20 elections, which the Taliban want boycotted.
The attack began when militants fired four rockets into the compound of the Logar province government from a building 150 metres (164 yards) away, provincial government spokesman Mohammad Darwish told AFP by telephone.
“The rockets hit the building and partially damaged the building. The governor was having lunch and no one was killed or wounded,” he said.
A suicide bomber managed to blow himself up inside the governor's compound but caused no casualties, killing only himself, Darwish said.
Two rockets slammed into the provincial police headquarters, again causing no casualties.
The attackers armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, were holed up in a multi-storey building, from where they exchanged fire with security forces, Darwish told AFP.
“The area is cordoned by security forces and there is no fighting at the moment,” he said later. “We don't know if there are any other suicide attackers in the area at this stage.”
Interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP that one policeman was killed. “Joint security forces have surrounded the attackers and soon they will be either arrested or killed,” he said.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan confirmed it had dispatched troops.
Workers were trapped inside their offices and shopkeepers fled when the firing started, said a witness, local journalist Mohammad Obaid.
The militants appeared to have taken control of a seven-storey building from where they opened fire, he told AFP, adding that a prison, elections office and counter-terrorism bureau were in the same area.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahed, claimed that six suicide attackers had entered the building and 21 people had been killed.
The hardline movement, which is leading an insurgency designed to topple the Western-backed government and has urged Afghans to boycott the presidential and provincial council elections, routinely exaggerates its claims.
In another attack Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up near Belgian troops serving under NATO in the northern province of Kunduz but caused no casualties and little damage, the alliance said.
Mounting Taliban violence, which is now at record levels, has threatened to overshadow the elections and could call into question the credibility of polls billed as a landmark since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime.
Electoral authorities said Monday that voting might have to be suspended in 10 districts unless the necessary security is in place ahead of the polls.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was meanwhile reported as saying the Taliban had gained the upper hand in the country, forcing the United States to change its strategy by upping the number of troops in heavily populated areas.
The Wall Street Journal quoted General Stanley McChrystal as saying in an interview the militant group was moving beyond its traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan to threaten formerly stable areas in the north and west.