KABUL (Reuters) – Five Taliban attackers laid siege to a British cultural center in the Afghan capital Friday, killing at least nine people during an hours-long assault on the 92nd anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from British rule.
A suicide bomber in car blew himself up in front of the gate of the British Council in Kabul before dawn, and another car packed with explosives detonated moments later while four attackers, three of them men clad in the burqa headcovering worn by Afghan women, stormed the compound, police said.
Scores of Afghan and NATO troops surrounded a compound strewn with wooden and metal debris while two helicopters hovered on watch above as the fighting progressed over at least eight hours, interspersed by a total of eight blasts.
Toward the end, the last of the four attackers who fought into the compound holed himself up in the bulletproof basement of the shattered building. There was only one option left to get him out, authorities said: blow him up.
A Reuters witness heard two big blasts in close succession near the siege’s end, around 1 p.m. Kabul time (4:30 a.m. EDT).
“Eight members of the Afghan national police and one foreign soldier were killed,” Mohammad Zahir, head of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, told Reuters. He said he was not able to confirm the nationality of the foreign soldier.
A ministry of interior spokesman said at least 16 people were wounded in the attack on the British Council, a state-funded agency running mainly cultural programs. It is not part of the main British embassy in Kabul’s diplomatic zone.
Two British nationals and one South African were inside the compound during the attack, but were later rescued by an elite Afghan unit, British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sir William Patey told a press conference.
“This was a dastardly, cowardly attack designed to attack British interests, but ultimately ending in the deaths of many Afghans and we regret the death of the Afghans,” Patey said, adding that the attack was over.
Kabul police chief Mohammad Ayob Salongi said four Afghan police, three Nepalese British Council guards and one Afghan street cleaner were killed. He too had no details on the nationality of the foreign soldier.
WARNING TO LONDON
A Reuters photograph taken at the scene showed what appeared to be a white male being lifted onto a stretcher with blood across his back and wound to the back of his head. A second photo showed a Union Jack insignia on his left shoulder, and a different uniform than those warn by council’s guards.
“There’s no confirmation on whether the foreign soldier who was wounded was killed,” Patey said, also declining to reveal the nationality.
The Taliban said they were sending two messages: “One to the Afghan government and one to the British,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.
“We are now reminding them that we will become independent again from all foreigners, especially from the British,” Mujahid said, referring to Afghanistan’s independence from British rule 92 years ago, which the country was marking on Friday amid heightened security.
After the United States, Britain has the second-largest force in the NATO-led war against the Taliban, with around 9,500 troops.
Mujahid declined to say how many bombers the Islamist group used for the attacks, which come a month after NATO handed over security responsibilities to the Afghans in several areas across the country, as part of a gradual transition process to be completed by the end of 2014.
Afghan forces have been given responsibility for the city of Kabul since 2008, when NATO handed over security control, but in reality NATO forces still police the area heavily.
There is growing unease in the United States and Europe about the costly and increasingly violent war that has dragged on for 10 years, causing U.S. lawmakers to question whether bringing home all combat troops by 2014 is fast enough.
NATO and the United States earlier this year reluctantly backed Kabul’s peace plan, which involves reconciliation with some members of the Taliban. The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not negotiate with the Afghan government until all foreign forces have stopped fighting in their country.
(Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Writing by Bryson Hull)
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