Seven dead in deadly Taliban assault on Kabul

KABUL, Sept 14, 2011 (AFP) - Afghan forces Wednesday struggled to dislodge the last of the Taliban fighters who mounted a spectacular assault on Kabul, targeting the US embassy and NATO headquarters with rockets and suicide bombs.

The chaotic battle which broke out on Tuesday moved into a second day, with authorities saying two insurgents were still holed up in a high-rise construction site where the attacks were launched.

AFP - Afghanistan's security forces stand guard near the building where armed attackers exchanged fire with security forces in Kabul on September 13, 2011.

Helicopters from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were circling the building at daybreak while explosions from rocket-propelled grenades continued amid sporadic gunfire, an AFP reporter near the scene said.

"Yes, there are ISAF air assets providing support at the request of the Afghan national security forces," said ISAF spokesman Sergeant Christopher DeWitt.

It is believed to be the first time a Taliban attack on Kabul -- seen as relatively safe compared to many other parts of Afghanistan -- has dragged across two days.

The coordinated assault, which has left at least seven people dead, is the latest sign that security has deteriorated sharply in the city where insurgents have staged increasingly brazen raids on Western targets.

It has also drawn questions over the ability of Afghan forces to protect their country after a security handover in July started a staged withdrawal of US-led combat troops which is due to finish in 2014.

Interior ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqui said Afghan forces were mounting an intensified operation to rid the building of the holdouts -- the last of at least eight attackers believed to be involved in the city-wide attacks.

"Now it's established that there are two of them remaining. They're on the 10th or 11th floor and are using hand grenades. They're fighting. The operation continues," he said. "They have rockets and hand grenades, they have weapons."

"We had some injuries overnight, three or four were injured in grenades," Siddiqui told AFP, referring to casualties among Afghan security forces.

Siddiqui said earlier that Afghan forces were working alongside NATO-led troops to hunt for the remaining gunmen, using night-vision goggles as the battle dragged on into the early hours.

Four civilians and three police were killed in the main wave of attacks Tuesday as well as three smaller linked incidents, according to the interior ministry spokesman.

A journalist from Afghan state broadcaster RTA was also shot and wounded while covering the standoff, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

At the US embassy, which blared out warnings for staff to take cover and avoid standing near windows as the attacks unfolded, spokeswoman Kerri Hannan said Tuesday there were no deaths or injuries among the hundreds of staff.

The embassy confirmed the attacks involved "RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and small arms fire" and that four Afghans had been injured -- three applying for visas and one local security guard.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that the "brave" Americans who work at the embassy would not be intimidated by such attacks.

"We will take all necessary steps not only to ensure the safety of our people but to secure the area and to ensure that those who perpetrated this attack are dealt with," she said.

The giant, high security US embassy compound borders the ISAF compound where thousands of foreign troops live and work.

Video released by NATO showed foreign forces taking up positions within ISAF headquarters Tuesday and shooting back at insurgents as they defended themselves from attack.

ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings told AFP that it suffered no casualties despite "minor damage" from "small arms and some indirect fire that landed in our compound."

The attacks started shortly after 1:30 pm (0900 GMT) Tuesday, when AFP reporters heard a string of loud blasts two days after the United States marked the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

A Taliban spokesman told AFP by text message that the targets were ISAF headquarters, the US embassy and Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and other "sensitive government places".

Witnesses told of their terror as events unfolded.

"I was sitting in my shop when suddenly I heard an explosion and then another one. Then there was gunfire," said Abdulbaqi, a local shopkeeper.

"People on the streets started running. I had to leave my shop to get to safety."

Three other suicide attacks struck Kabul on Tuesday -- two against police and one by an attacker who was killed as he headed towards the airport. All caused only a small number of casualties.

President Hamid Karzai insisted the raid would not derail the security transition process but would "embolden our people's determination in taking the responsibility for their country’s own affairs".

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said his organisation had "confidence" in the Afghan authorities and the transition process which has seen Kabul and six other parts of the country handed over by foreign troops.

Last month, nine people died when suicide bombers attacked the British Council cultural body in Kabul.

And in June, insurgents stormed the city's luxury Intercontinental Hotel sparking a fierce battle which killed at least 12.

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