KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Explosions and gunfire rocked the heart of Kabul on Monday as insurgents wearing suicide vests attacked government buildings and a downtown hotel in the most brazen assault on the Afghan capital since last fall.
Afghan officials said at least five people were killed and about 30 wounded in hours of intense fighting before the Afghan government said it had the situation under control. Seven attackers were also reported killed.
The gunfire and chaos sent staff at the Canadian Embassy rushing to a secure part of their compound for safety. There has been no report of any Canadian casualties from the fighting.
“I was particularly concerned about those Canadian advisers who were helping Afghan government ministries,” Ambassador William Crosbie told The Canadian Press. “So far, from what we know, all the Canadians are safe.”
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that 20 armed militants, including some with explosive vests designed for suicide missions, had entered Kabul to target the presidential palace and other government buildings in the centre of Kabul.
Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rattled the city for hours. Debris was strewn on the streets, which were quickly abandoned by crowds that normally fill the area. Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said a child and a policeman were killed. The Ministry of Public Health later said five people — a civilian and four security forces — were killed and 30 others wounded.
The attack came as members of the cabinet were being sworn in by President Hamid Karzai despite the rejection by parliament of most of his choices. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said the ceremony had occurred as scheduled and everybody in the palace was safe.
“As we were conducting the ceremony to swear in the cabinet, a terrorist attack was going in an area of Kabul close to the presidential palace,” Karzai told reporters.
After a series of blasts and more than three hours of gunfights outside several ministries and inside a shopping mall, Karzai said security had been restored to the capital. Search operations continued amid reports that more attackers were hiding in the city.
It was the biggest assault on Kabul since Oct. 28 when gunmen with automatic weapons and suicide vests stormed a guest house used by UN staff, killing at least 11 people including three UN workers.
The first blast was heard shortly before 10 a.m. in an area where government buildings are concentrated, including the presidential palace, the central bank and the luxury Serena Hotel, a fortified five-star facility popular with visiting westerners.
Police sealed off a large area in the centre of Kabul as machine-gun fire echoed through the mountain-rimmed city. Helicopters buzzed overhead. A car that exploded between a shopping centre and the Ministry of Education burned in the street.
Fighting raged for more than three hours and a four-storey shopping centre near the Justice Ministry was engulfed in flames after a group of militants entered the building, throwing grenades inside to frighten shoppers, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary.
Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives and Afghan troops killed two other militants in the mall, Bashary said.
In a statement from Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon strongly condemned the attack and extended Canada’s condolences to the victims.
“These attacks clearly demonstrate the insurgents in Afghanistan have absolutely no regard for the lives of Afghans,” Cannon said.
“(They) are determined to prevent Afghans from living in peace and security and the Afghan government from working for its citizens.”
Crosbie, who was visiting Kandahar when the incident occurred, said he was not surprised by the insurgent assault.
“We have been expecting further complex attacks,” Crosbie said. “They follow a pattern which we have seen in the city.”
Kabul, home to about four or five million people, is a bustling city. Security is everywhere, and government buildings in particular are heavily fortified. Still, Taliban insurgents have shown on several occasions they are capable of striking high-profile targets.
Crosbie conceded that “determined” insurgents will manage to get through the ubiquitous checkpoints, but maintained that Afghan forces have prevented many attacks.
“Unless we are really prepared to lock down the city and stop normal life, I don’t think they are going to be able to prevent attacks such as this,” he said.
Crosbie called Monday’s assault “shattering” for its victims, but said Kabul is not a city under siege.
The main targets, he noted, were Afghan government buildings and security forces, as well as Westerners.
“The insurgents will use instruments of terror to cause terror in the city without real impact on the military situation, but trying to have an impact on the psychology of Afghans,” Crosbie said.
Like many others in the city, Afghan-Canadian cardiologist Dr. Asmat Naebkhil spent much of the day following news of the fighting via the radio. He called the situation depressingly common.
“When people sort of see a light in this dark future tunnel, something happens to drown their hopes again in sadness and hopelessness,” Naebkhil said.
“The losers in this imperialistic and terrorist war are poor, innocent, hungry and tired Afghan civilians.”
United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide said the assault in such a busy area showed a “staggering disregard for civilian lives.”