Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Insurgents attack heart of Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan capital awoke today to a second day of explosions and heavy gunfire as Afghan-led forces worked to defeat insurgents holed up in one building in the heart of the city and another near parliament.

As darkness turned to dawn, Afghan-led forces fired one rocket-propelled grenade after another into a building in the centre of the city where insurgents began their attack on Sunday in the capital and three eastern cities. The Taliban's boldest and most complex assault in years lasted more than 17 hours.

Fighting had subsided by 7 a.m., but sporadic gunfire could still be heard near the parliament building.

The Taliban began their near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, saying it was their response to NATO officials' recent claims that the insurgency was weak.

Authorities said one police officer and at least 17 militants were killed in the multi-pronged attacks, which showed the Taliban and their allies are far from beaten and underscored the security challenge facing government forces as U.S. and NATO forces draw down. The majority of international combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.

The U.S., German and British embassies and some coalition and Afghan government buildings took direct and indirect fire, according to Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. Local residents near the parliament building said rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire rocked their neighbourhood through the night and into the morning.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said militants took up position in a building under construction near parliament. Some lawmakers grabbed weapons and started fighting when militants fired on the parliament building on Sunday.

Local residents reported gunfire and explosions Today morning, but Sediqi said the militants' standoff with Afghan security forces had ended.

Reporters for The Associated Press witnessed the Today morning assault on another building under construction near the presidential palace, western embassies and Afghan ministries.

Shortly before 3 a.m., coalition helicopters began flying over the building. At 4:23 a.m. a religious cleric began calling Muslim worshippers to prayer over a loudspeaker in the area. During the next 15 minutes, troops launched five rocket-propelled grenades into the building. More followed.

The loud booms from the blasts momentarily silenced chirping birds. Red and white flashes could be seen inside the various floors of the multistory building. By about 6:30 a.m., the blasts and shooting had stopped.

An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said an operation to clear the building was nearly completed. The official said one insurgent was still defending the building, but that at least four other militants had been killed.

The first explosions on Sunday rocked the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Soon gunshots and rocket-propelled grenade fire were ringing out across the city. Smoke rose over the skyline as sirens wailed. A loudspeaker at the U.S. Embassy could be heard barking: "Duck and cover. Move away from the windows."

It was the most widespread attack in the Afghan capital since an assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September blamed on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group allied with the Taliban. Explosions and the crackle of gunfire could be heard throughout the night.

The sophistication and firepower of the latest strikes, as well as the high-profile government and foreign targets, bore the hallmarks of the attack last fall and others carried out by Haqqani insurgents.

As in the earlier attack, armed insurgents took over half-built buildings Sunday and used them to fire down on nearby embassies and bases. In the streets of Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, are located, residents scrambled for cover as gunfire rained down from all directions.

.Meanwhile, Canadian personnel in Afghanistan were reported safe after the wave of co-ordinated attacks by the Taliban, according to Canadian officials.

"All Canadian personnel, including personnel at the Embassy of Canada, have been accounted for and are safe," said Emmanuelle Lamoureux, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Canadian Embassy was locked down, with staffers moved to a secure area soon after shooting erupted nearby at about 2 p.m. local time, a source inside the Canadian Embassy said Sunday.

"I heard stuff at the beginning, probably small-arms fire, but did not hear any explosions," before the staff at the embassy went to a protected area, the source said. At the time that the source spoke, the Canadians had been in the safe area for about six hours. They were later allowed to return to the embassy proper.

-- The Associated Press, with file from Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2012 A9

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