KABUL, Jun 25 – Taliban militants attacked an entrance to the Afghan presidential palace with gunfire and car bombs on Tuesday, just a week after insurgent leaders opened an office in Qatar for peace talks.
It was one of the most brazen attacks in the capital since President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped assassination in April 2008 when the Taliban attacked an annual military parade in Kabul.
Gunfire and explosions erupted for more than an hour after the attack began at 6:30 am (0200 GMT), sending smoke into the air above a high-security area of Kabul that also contains many embassies and official buildings.
Two four-wheel-drive cars using fake NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) badges tried to pass through a checkpoint to access the sprawling palace grounds, police said.
“The first vehicle was checked and let in, and as the second car tried to get in the guards became suspicious and tried to prevent it,” Mohammad Daud Amin, the Kabul deputy police chief, told AFP.
“The clash started and the cars were detonated. All the attackers were killed.”
Police said the cars had been fitted with radio antennae to make them look like ISAF vehicles and that the three or four attackers were also wearing military uniforms.
No civilians were hurt in the attack, but police were unable to confirm if any palace security guards had been injured.
The cars detonated near a CIA office inside the first of several layers of checkpoints around the palace, but a palace official told AFP that the building’s expansive grounds had not been breached.
Karzai, who lives in the palace, was due to hold a press event on Tuesday morning and journalists had been asked to report to a checkpoint near the blasts.
All roads to the palace are permanently closed off, with multiple rings of heavy security around the complex keeping people far away.
“A big group of attackers have struck against the CIA office as the main target and also the palace and the defence ministry nearby,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
In the southern province of Kandahar, a roadside bombing on Tuesday killed eight women and one child as they were travelling to celebrate a wedding engagement, police said.
The last major attack in Kabul was on June 11 when the Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb outside the Supreme Court that killed at least 15 civilians.
Tuesday’s attack came during a visit to Kabul by US envoy James Dobbins after a diplomatic bust-up over the Taliban’s new office in Qatar that was intended as a first step towards a peace deal to end 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
The Qatar office used the formal name of “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan” from the rebels’ 1996-2001 government, and flew the white Taliban flag that is seen by many Afghans as a grim reminder of the cruelties of Taliban rule.
Karzai, furious over the flag and sign, broke off Afghan-US talks on an agreement that would allow Washington to maintain soldiers in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends next year.
Karzai has also refused to send representatives to Qatar, but pressure is growing for a ceasefire and eventually a peace settlement ahead of the NATO withdrawal and presidential elections in April.
About 100,000 foreign combat troops, 68,000 of them from the US, are due to exit by the end of 2014, and NATO formally transferred responsibility for nationwide security to Afghan forces a week ago.
When in power, the Taliban imposed a harsh version of Islamic law that banned television, music and cinema, stopped girls from going to school and forced woman to wear the all covering burqa.
They were ousted in 2001 for sheltering the Al-Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks, but launched a resilient and bloody insurgency against US-led NATO troops and the US-backed Afghan government.
Dobbins on Monday said Washington was “outraged” at how the Taliban opened an office in Qatar and that the US was “waiting to hear” whether the militants were committed to peace talks.
“It doesn’t seem like an entirely spurious effort on their part but whether they are prepared to participate… we just don’t know,’ he told reporters.