Taliban lay siege to NATO air base in Kabul in early morning assault

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Taliban fighters firing from atop an unfinished mansion attacked the military side of Kabul’s international airport early Monday, triggering a gun battle with Afghan security forces that lasted more than four hours before the attackers were killed.

Two civilians suffered minor injuries, but there were no casualties among the foreign troops on the base or the Afghan security forces, and the attackers never entered the base, said Afghan officials.

The military part of the base includes the operational headquarters for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the headquarters of the Afghan air force. It's also used by various NATO aircraft, but is separate from the civilian portion of the airport.

In an email, a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attackers began by firing from the upper floors of the four-story house down into the north side of the airport about 350 yards away.

As the fighting raged, journalists taking cover behind a nearby house could see modest damage to at least one tent-like temporary hangar. Apparently, though, it didn't belong to ISAF: a spokeswoman for the coalition said there was no damage to its buildings, aircraft or equipment.

It was an ineffective echo of an assault last year on the main airfield used by U.S. Marines in restive Helmand Province. Those attackers, dressed in U.S. uniforms, breached a lightly-defended side of Camp Bastion and attacked a row of hangars. They killed two U.S. Marines , wounded eight others and a civilian contractor and caused about $200 million in damage to aircraft.

This time though, there were fewer than half as many attackers, security forces responded within minutes and the results were much different.

The fighters drove into the residential neighborhood in a car and a delivery truck before 4 a.m., and tried to enter a different house, but the gate was locked, said a witness, Berhannudin, who was walking with a friend to a nearby mosque for morning prayers. There were seven of them, all but one in the uniform of the Border Police, which has its national headquarters nearby.

The one in civilian clothes pointed a pistol at a local man outside the mosque and demanded his cell phone, before the attackers walked back to their vehicles speaking Pashto, said Berhannudin, who like many Afghans uses one name. They then drove about a block to the house they used for the attacks, a massive four-story home under construction about 350 yards north of the airport’s security perimeter.

Next door, Sayed Maqbol, his brother, their wives and 10 children had just awoken and also were preparing for prayers when the attackers began shooting machine guns and what sounded like rocket-propelled grenades into the base.

As security forces from the base returned fire, Maqbol called police, who arrived within minutes and began exchanging fire with the militants. Reinforcements poured in, including dozens of Afghan regular and special operations soldiers and intelligence service commandos.

Maqbol's family hid in their house as the Afghan security forces fired grenades and hundreds of bullets over them into the house next door, and the Taliban fighters returned fire, he said.

Firing from the Afghan security forces grew so intense, Maqbol said, that attackers on upper floors were killed and the others were forced into the lower floors and basement, where they no longer had a clear shot into the airport or neighboring compounds. At that point, he said and police surged into the neighborhood and pulled his family and other civilians out of the nearby homes to safety.

The target may have echoed Camp Bastion, but the style resembled previous assaults in the capital in which Taliban attackers took control of the upper floors of a building to launch grenades and small arms fire into an objective. A similar attack took place on the U.S. Embassy in September 2011.

The fighting continued for hours, with dozen of explosions, several of them, as it turned out, suicide vests worn by the attackers. Two Afghan Army helicopters circled the scene for part of the battle, joined for awhile by a pair of the Black Hawks usually flown by the NATO-led coalition.

Early in the fighting, Kabul police chief Gen. Mohammed Ayoub Salangi said, a police officer fired an RPG that destroyed the attackers's small truck, which he said was loaded with explosives. The attackers may have intended to use it to blow their way into the base.

Reporters taking cover behind a nearby house as the battle raged could hear loudspeakers from the base telling personnel there to remain in bunkers and predicting that the fighters would be repelled "in an hour or two."

With the ongoing drawdown among the NATO-led troops, Afghan security forces now take the lead in fighting in nearly all of the country and appeared fully in charge of the response to the attack Monday.

Two U.S. troops were seen sticking close to Afghan police leaders, and at one point a Norwegian special forces operator pushed through the journalists to enter a house that Afghan security officials were using as a kind of command post. But the two Americans seemed only to be observing, and otherwise there was little sign of foreign forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was traveling in Qatar, praised his security forces' quick and effective response in a statement released by his office. And Sediq Sediqi the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which includes the national police, said the failed attack "should be an example for those who dare to attack Afghans in the future.

The outcome of the fight was a confidence booster for the Afghan soldiers and police who were visibly cheerful when journalists were allowed into the neighborhood about an hour after the shooting stopped. Several casually struck heroic poses behind the machine guns on their trucks, others went from room to room in the house, gawking at the bodies of the attackers.

The remains of six were in various rooms of the house and it was clear that most or all of them had triggered suicide vests as the Afghan security forces closed in. It's unclear what happened to the seventh.

The concrete house was pocked inside and out with holes from RPGs and hundreds of bullets, with some of the heaviest damage on the side that was just a few yards from Maqbol's house. He could scarcely believe his family survived.

"They saved our lives," he said, standing in his front yard, a few feet from the body of an expended rocket. "I really praise what the police officers did for me and my family today and appreciate that they took this risk.

Also on Monday morning, another group of attackers hit provincial offices in Zabul Province in the southeastern part of the country. Six of them tried to enter Provincial Council building in the city of Qalat about 11 a.m., said provincial police chief, Ghulam Sarhi Roghlewanay, but police officers killed them.

Then a suicide bomber outside detonated the charge in his truck. No one was killed, at lest initially, but 20 people were injured, including police officers, provincial council members and their bodyguards, and several Qalat municipal employees, Roghlewanay said.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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