Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 22 people in a bold attack on a governor’s compound in central Afghanistan during a security meeting officials said, with gunbattles and several blasts heard before the assault was put down.
A Reuters witness and others nearby reported hearing at least five explosions as Afghan security forces inside the compound of Parwan governor Abdul Basir Salangi fought back.
Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said 22 people were killed and 34 wounded. The dead included 16 government employees and six police, it said in a statement, Reuters reports.
Parwan lies about an hour’s drive northwest of the capital, Kabul, another worrying sign of the reach of the Taliban and other insurgents.
Eight days ago, a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban brought down a NATO helicopter in another central Afghan province near Kabul, killing 30 U.S. troops and eight Afghans in the worst single incident for foreign forces in 10 years of war.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Parwan attack. Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Islamist group, said the assault began when a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives at the gate of the compound.
He said five other bombers made it inside the compound, where he claimed U.S. officials were taking part in a meeting.
“Many people were killed, including Americans, but we still don’t have the exact information,” Mujahid said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The Taliban often exaggerate incidents involving Afghan government targets or foreign troops.
The twisted wreckage of what appeared to have been the car bomb lay outside the gate of the compound as Afghan police and soldiers swarmed around the scene.
Sharafuddin Rahimi, an adviser to the Parwan police chief, said a meeting involving the police chief, the governor “and some foreign advisers” was under way when the attack was launched but said the attackers did not reach the meeting room.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul confirmed several of its members were attending a shura, or meeting, in Salangi’s office at the time of the attack but said none was injured.
Rahimi said one of the police chief’s bodyguards was among those killed, as well as women and children.
Reuters Television pictures showed the bodies of some of those killed lying huddled behind what was left of their desks amid the debris of destroyed outer offices in the compound.
A concrete water tank inside the compound was filled with blood. Reuters pictures showed an unidentified Afghan policeman stomping on the head of one of the dead attackers.
In a statement from the presidential palace, Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the Parwan attack. ISAF, which provided air cover during the fight, also condemned the raid as “despicable.”
Reuters Television showed Salangi talking on the phone as officials rushed anxiously around his office. In the middle of the raid, he told Afghan TV his forces were fighting back.
Insurgents, often from the Taliban, have launched a series of attacks against government targets over the past year, often in the east of the country near the porous border with Pakistan’s largely lawless tribal lands.
Violence across Afghanistan in 2010 reached its worst levels since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, and 2011 has followed a similar trend.
While foreign military casualties hit record levels last year — and 2011 has been almost as bloody — civilians continue to bear the brunt of the costly and increasingly unpopular war.
U.N. figures released last month showed that the first six months of 2011 had been the deadliest of the war for ordinary Afghans, with 1,462 killed, a rise of 15 percent on the same period last year. The same U.N. report blamed 80 percent of those civilian casualties on insurgents.
U.S. and other NATO commanders have claimed success in halting the momentum of a growing insurgency in the Taliban heartland in the south over the past year, although insurgents have hit back with strikes against targets in once relatively peaceful parts of the country.
A recent spike in violence also followed the beginning of a gradual process to hand security responsibility back to Afghans last month.
That process will end with the final foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014, although some U.S. lawmakers have questioned whether that timetable is not quick enough.