Taliban suicide bombings, shootout kill 16 in Afghan capital

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Near-simultaneous Taliban suicide bombings and an hours-long shootout with Afghan security forces left at least 16 people dead and over 100 wounded in Kabul on Wednesday--a stark reminder of the militants' ability to stage large-scale and complex attacks in the country's capital.

The brazen noon-time attacks also underscored the challenges the government continues to face as it grapples with the 15-year-long insurgency and struggles to improve security for ordinary Afghans.

In one of the twin attacks, a suicide car bomber rammed his vehicle into the gates of a sprawling police compound in western Kabul. The explosion was followed by a gunbattle between security forces and several gunmen who stormed into the complex, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Thick black smoke rose above the grounds, and several rounds of small-arms fire and subsequent explosions were heard from inside, according the Mohammad Naser, a shopkeeper who has a store nearby. Dozens of windows were shattered on surrounding houses and shops, he added.

The compound includes Kabul's so-called Sixth Police Station and is located next to the country's military school, which might have been the original target, along with cadets attending classes there.

Hours later, the gunbattle ended with all the attackers killed, said Sadiq Muradi of the Kabul police chief's office. Security forces were carrying out a clean-up operation following the attack, he added.

Wahid Mujro, the public health ministry spokesman, said 15 people were killed in the police compound.

The second attack took place in eastern Kabul where a suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosives outside the offices of the country's intelligence service, killing one person. A total of 104 people were wounded in both attacks, Mujro said.

In a message to media, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for both attacks. It was not immediately clear how many gunmen were involved in the attack on the Kabul police complex.

"We were in the dining room, eating lunch when a loud explosion happened. I couldn't see anything for a while," said Manizha, a policewoman who like many women in Afghanistan uses only one name.

She said she managed to escape from the compound as the gunbattle continued inside.

President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attacks, saying that "terrorists and their alien masters once again tried to create an atmosphere of terror and fear in Kabul."

Ghani linked the attacks to the recent death of a senior Taliban commander, known as Mullah Salaam, in northeastern Kunduz province and said the insurgents are trying to attack urban centres to boost morale among their followers.

The UN Security Council condemned "the heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks" and underlined the need to bring the perpetrators to justice. Council members reiterated their "serious concern" at the threat posed by the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic State extremist group to the local population, security forces and the international presence in Afghanistan.

But, the council's statement said, "no violent or terrorist acts can reverse the Afghan-led process along the path towards peace, democracy and stability in Afghanistan, which is supported by the people and the government of Afghanistan, and by the international community."

Meanwhile, the Taliban gained control Wednesday of local government headquarters in a district in northern Baghlan province, after almost three days of intense battles with Afghan security forces, according to local officials.

Abdul Satar Barez, the provincial governor, said he could not confirm that the whole district of Tala Wa Barfak has fallen to the Taliban but said a number of checkpoints have fallen to the insurgents amid clashes Wednesday.

A provincial security official said the security forces left their checkpoints and withdrew from the entire district, which is now in Taliban hands. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, tweeted that their fighters have overrun the Tala Wa Barfak headquarters.

Afghanistan has been wracked by violence as the Taliban continue to press their offensive into the winter months, targeting mainly government forces and the Afghan military but with scores of civilians getting caught up in the deadly violence.

The government is also facing an Islamic State affiliate, which is seeking to expand its footprint in the country beyond the eastern Nangarhar province.

Since the withdrawal of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 that left a smaller, mainly training and support mission of US and other Western troops, the Taliban have tried to take their war into urban centres as well.

In September 2015, insurgents overran and briefly held Kunduz, the capital of the strategically important Kunduz province, a breadbasket region that borders Tajikistan to the north and sits on a major crossroad in the country. It was the first time the militant group had taken a major city.

Kunduz came under threat again last April, when Afghan forces aided by US troops and air power pushed the Taliban back into the surrounding districts.

In southern Helmand province, where most of Afghanistan's opium comes from Taliban-controlled poppy fields, the insurgents have gained full control of five of the province's 14 districts and effectively control eight others where just small pockets government-held territory remain.

The militants are also now closing in on Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah, where a wave of assaults and suicide attacks killed dozens in recent months.