Kandahar: Taliban insurgents armed with bombs, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the Kandahar police headquarters Saturday during a bloody assault on the southern Afghan city that killed at least 21 people and wounded dozens more.
The bold afternoon raid showed insurgents are still able to launch deadly strikes on heavily fortified government institutions despite the past year`s influx of US troops into Kandahar province, the Taliban`s birthplace. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Fifteen of those killed were Afghan police officers, said provincial Governor Toryalai Wesa. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said three Afghan soldiers, two civilians and one intelligence service agent also died in the assault.
Insurgents first struck around noon, detonating a series of explosions that rocked the area near the provincial police headquarters. The police post is located in central Kandahar, not far from the governor`s offices.
Initial reports suggest a car bomb exploded outside the police compound, and then immediately afterward two suicide bombers tried to storm the headquarters but blew themselves up outside the perimeter wall, according to NATO officials in Kandahar.
Five militants fitted with suicide vests battled with police for several hours, Bashary said.
Some occupied a multistory building housing a wedding hall across the street from the headquarters. From there, they fired on the police headquarters compound with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
A news agency reporter nearby said multiple explosions rocked the neighborhood around the station. Exchanges of gunfire occasionally died down, only to pick up again several minutes later.
Residents quickly shuttered shops and took cover inside as the fighting raged, and NATO vehicles could be seen inside the city. Helicopters hovered over the city as police deployed extra forces on the streets and around government buildings.
Several loud explosions again rattled buildings more than an hour after the first blast struck.
Bashary said 49 people were wounded — 25 police officers, 23 civilians and one intelligence agent.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press the group was behind the attack.
He said the Taliban deployed six suicide bombers armed with hand-held weapons to various parts of the city, including a team of three to the site near the police headquarters. The claim could not be independently verified.
A NATO spokesman in Kabul said the multinational force was looking into reports of attacks in Kandahar, but he had no immediate report of coalition involvement.
Kandahar remains a hotbed of Taliban activity. Insurgents continue to attack officials and others who support pro-government forces. Late last month, a suicide bomber killed the province`s deputy governor.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed a retired US Customs and Border Protection officer and wounded three other American customs workers when he detonated explosives inside a customs warehouse compound during a visit by NATO forces.
Photojournalist Giles Duley was critically wounded on Feb. 7 when he was struck by a roadside bomb while embedded with US troops in Afghanistan, the UK-based photo agency Camera Press said in a statement Saturday.
The agency said Duley, 39, underwent emergency surgery in Kandahar and additional surgery in Britain after losing parts of multiple limbs.
Duley had planned to document the suffering of bomb victims in Afghanistan, but decided to embed with the US Army when the opportunity arose, according to Camera Press. His work has appeared in magazines including Vogue, GQ, Esquire and Rolling Stone. He also has shot photos for humanitarian organizations including Doctors Without Borders and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
NATO declined to comment on the incident, citing operational policy.
US and NATO commanders insist they are making progress in the fight against the Taliban and its allies. The US hopes to solidify gains against insurgents as it prepares to begin drawing down forces in July. NATO aims to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan`s security to local forces by 2014.