KANDAHAR, (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents, including six suicide bombers, hit a series of government targets across Kandahar in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, triggering gunbattles that wounded at least 24 people.
The attacks started with an explosion near the provincial governor’s compound in the heart of the city and several other blasts were later heard in other areas in what appeared to be coordinated attacks, a Reuters witness and officials said.
Shooting erupted after the first explosion and the Reuters witness said he could see gunmen firing from a five-storey shopping mall towards the governor’s compound, from where security forces returned fire as helicopters circled overhead.
“The Taliban are attacking the governor’s compound and the fighting is still ongoing,” Zalmay Ayoubi, spokesman for Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa, told Reuters from inside the heavily guarded compound.
Ayoubi said six suicide bombers had detonated their explosives at several government targets across the city, including a compound belonging to the intelligence service, a foreign special forces base and Afghan police checkpoints.
Gunfights between the militants and security forces were still going in at least three locations, Ayoubi said, and 24 people had so far been wounded, including six policemen, while the remainder were civilians.
After the first explosion, black smoke could be seen rising near Wesa’s compound, which also surrounds the governor’s house. Ayoubi said the governor was inside and unhurt.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul said ISAF forces were providing security in Kandahar in a “supportive” role to Afghan forces.
Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, has been the focus of military operations over the past year. U.S. and NATO commanders have said they have made some security gains, but those successes are not yet entrenched.
Violence across Afghanistan reached its worst levels in 2010 since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict.
A sense of panic swept Kandahar as the gunbattles erupted. People ran through the streets in search of safety and shopkeepers closed their outlets for fear of looting.
The Taliban last week announced the start of their “spring offensive,” vowing to increase attacks on foreign troops and Afghan government officials. Those threats were reissued after the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in neighbouring Pakistan on Monday.
A Taliban spokesman said the militant group were responsible for the Kandahar attacks but said they were unrelated to bin Laden’s death.
“A number of fighters are in several locations around the city. These are not retaliatory attacks for the death of Osama bin Laden but are part of our spring offensive,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Reuters from an undisclosed location.
Last month, hundreds of prisoners, mostly insurgents, escaped from a jail in Kandahar through a tunnel dug by Taliban militants. A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai described the escape as a “disaster.”
Days before that, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform killed General Khan Mohammed Mujahid, the Kandahar police chief.
The Taliban have managed to carry out a number of high-profile attacks inside Kandahar and in the capital Kabul over the past year despite Afghan and foreign forces beefing up security around both cities.
The Taliban issued a statement late on Friday expressing their condolences over the death of bin Laden but said this would only revive their fight in Afghanistan.