Taliban gunmen launched a suicide attack near the presidential palace and CIA offices in Kabul after using fake security passes to get into the fortified diplomatic zone and killing three checkpoint guards.
Attackers jumped out of a vehicle at a roundabout near the Salam Khana (Welcome Home) gate of the presidential palace and opened fire on guards and the former Ariana hotel nearby, which has been used as a CIA base for more than a decade.
A spokesman for the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said the fighting never approached the palace’s inner area of homes and offices, which lies behind walls that are dozens of metres thick in places.
Journalists who had gathered for early security checks before a presidential press event witnessed the attackers pile out of a minivan. They fled behind a shrine for shelter, scooping up a young student who had been heading for classes at a nearby school, and took cover as fighting raged for about 90 minutes. All escaped unhurt.
The Taliban claimed responsibility. It was the first complex attack since the Taliban said last week that they were open to peace talks. “This is very much a message that ‘we can still do war as well as peace’,” said Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Ariana Square, the scene of the attack, is notorious in Afghanistan as the place where the Taliban hung the body of the former president Najibullah from a lamppost when they took control of the city in 1996. Nowadays it is so heavily secured that it is virtually empty of traffic and pedestrians.
The attackers arrived along a road leading up from the river with just one relatively lax checkpoint before the outer palace gate. The other access roads are more heavily guarded with outer checkpoints and then high security posts, where most vehicles and passengers need prior authorisation to continue.
Kabul’s police chief, Ayoub Salangi, said the attackers had fake identification from a compound inside the unofficial green zone, which is dotted with embassies, military bases and ministries. “It was clever of the guards at the gate to recognise the fake identification card and when they understood that, they stopped them and two or three attackers jumped out from the vehicle and fighting started,” Salangi said.
If the negotiations go ahead they will be the first in the 12-year-long war. Karzai withdrew his government from negotiation plans after the Taliban presented their Doha villa as a quasi-embassy for a government-in-exile with their white flag flying and a name plaque boasting that it housed representatives from the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
Both the flag and the plaque have now gone, and the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is in Kabul to try to convince the Afghan president to rejoin talks on both peace and a long-term US military presence in the country. Karzai withdrew from the security negotiations in anger at what he said was US duplicity over the peace talks.
Also on Tuesday morning a roadside bomb killed 10 women and children and an elderly man who were travelling in a minibus in southern Kandahar province, the local government said.