April 1, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Five suicide bombers stormed a government office in Kandahar on Wednesday morning, killing 13 people, including two provincial government officials, and wounding 14.
One militant detonated a car bomb at the entrance gate of the provincial council office, as the others stormed the compound with assault rifles and hand grenades. Seven civilians and six police officers were killed in the 20-minute gun battle, which ended when two of the militants blew themselves up in the main hall, said the provincial police chief, Matiullah Qati.
The assault by multiple gunmen followed a pattern of militant attacks across the region recently, from Kabul, the Afghan capital, to Lahore in Pakistan and Mumbai in India.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack. Intelligence officials have warned that militants are planning attacks on Afghan government officials, elders and Parliament members in the coming months.
The attack, in daylight in the center of the city, was the second in the past year in which Taliban fighters infiltrated Kandahar, an important city in the south, in such a brazen manner. Armed insurgents assaulted the main prison in Kandahar in June, detonating a truck bomb and overrunning the prison, killing 15 guards and freeing hundreds of prisoners.
The dead on Wednesday included a provincial health official and an education official who had been attending a seminar by an American group, as well as police and council workers, said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the leader of the provincial council. Mr. Karzai, a brother of President Hamid Karzai, was not at the office during the attack.
The seminar was being conducted by the National Democratic Institute, a group that promotes democracy. No one from the group was injured, said Kathy Gest, the director of public affairs for the institute in Washington. A number of groups were holding meetings in the compound on Wednesday, officials said.
Hajji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member who attended the institute’s seminar, said the attackers were dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms.
“We heard a loud explosion, and four men with Afghan National Army uniforms entered the building and started shooting everywhere,” he said. “It was a huge explosion; it shook the whole city.”
Security officials evacuated the delegates as the battle raged, he said. Two attackers were shot dead, but two inside the main building later blew themselves up, collapsing the roof, Mr. Lalai said.
Outside the building, a driver for the provincial council, Naseer Ahmad, said he saw the attackers in army uniforms waiting by a nearby building shortly before the explosion. When the car bomb detonated at the gate, the four men rushed into the building and started shooting indiscriminately, he said. Police officers who arrived to help were killed, he said.
Mr. Karzai, the provincial council leader, commended the quick actions of the police and said their response kept the death toll relatively low. But he complained that the government had provided only 10 guards as security for the event.
Canadian troops arrived after the Afghan police and cordoned off the area.
Mr. Karzai said the insurgents chose to attack the provincial council because it was working to help the people and to provide a bridge between the government and the disenchanted population.
“The enemy is trying to kill the provincial council members,” he said. “For them the members are an obstacle, and that’s why they are targeting them with such a big plan.”
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul. Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.