KABUL - Taliban insurgents wearing burqas unleashed rockets and gunfire on the Afghan election commission’s headquarters in Kabul on Saturday, in the latest major assault on the city one week before polling day.
Six hours after the attack began, security forces gunned down the last of the five gunmen who had occupied a nearby building and targeted the heavily-fortified election offices. “There were five attackers, all of them used burqas as a disguise. They have all been killed,” interior ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told AFP. “Two members of special police units were slightly injured.”
Quick-response commando teams rushed to hunt down the attackers, who unleashed rockets and gunfire from a nearby building. Eight international UN staffers remained inside the besieged IEC building, a security source said.
Another security official said at least three suicide bombers have been killed.
The owner of the house used to fire at the IEC building said that three guards were present at the time it was taken by the Taliban. “I had three guards, two outside and one inside, but I don’t know what has happened. The attackers were wearing women’s burqas,” said Haji Mohibullah.
Independent Election Commission (IEC) spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said that its employees were unharmed after many hid for hours in reinforced safe-rooms. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack via a recognised Twitter account.
Kabul airport, which is in the same eastern area of the city, was closed for several hours, with planes diverting to Karachi or returning to Delhi as well as other destinations.
“I heard several explosions, and I saw insurgents armed with heavy and light weapons taking up positions in a private building, and they started firing,” one local driver who declined to give his name told AFP.
As tensions rise in Kabul, some restaurants and shops popular with foreigners have shut for the election period due to the risk of attack.
The militant group has vowed to disrupt the vote on April 5, urging their fighters to attack polling staff, voters and security forces in the run-up to polling day.
Male militants have previously used the all-enveloping burqa to disguise themselves and evade security checks in Afghanistan, including in a 2012 attack when four French troops were killed.
The election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, barred constitutionally from seeking a third term, will be Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic handover of power.
But a repeat of the bloodshed that marred the 2004 and 2009 elections would damage claims by international donors that the expensive 13-year US-led intervention has made progress in establishing a functioning Afghan state.
Saturday’s assault came the day after Taliban attackers raided a Kabul guesthouse used by a US anti-landmine charity, killing two people.
The guesthouse attack was the fourth this year in Kabul targeting foreigners or places where foreigners congregate.
Last Thursday four Taliban gunmen smuggled pistols into Kabul’s high-security Serena hotel and shot dead nine people including four foreigners.
The victims also included Agence France-Presse journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of their three children.
Those attacks followed the daylight shooting of a Swedish radio journalist and an assault in January on a Lebanese restaurant that killed 21 people including 13 foreigners.
On Tuesday, Taliban suicide attackers stormed a separate IEC office in the Afghan capital, killing five people.
Presidential candidates have been holding election rallies across the country before the last day of campaigning on Wednesday.
Former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in 2009, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul are the leading contenders in the eight-man race.
On Saturday, a telephone poll of 3,200 voters in all 34 provinces put Ghani on 27 percent, Abdullah on 25 percent and Rassoul on 8 percent, but polling remains an unproven prediction tool in Afghan elections.
ATR, the Kabul-based research group that took the poll, said that about 30 percent of voters remained undecided.