/ 28 October 2009

Taliban kill six UN foreign staff in Kabul attack

Taliban militants killed six United Nations foreign staff in an assault on an international guesthouse in Kabul on Wednesday, raising questions about security for a presidential election run-off due in 10 days.

A resurgent Taliban have vowed to stage attacks ahead of the November 7 run-off as United States President Barack Obama weighs sending more soldiers to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency that has reached its fiercest level since the Islamists were ousted in 2001.

In another sign of the growing reach of militants, rockets were also fired at a foreign-owned luxury hotel near the presidential palace in the Afghan capital, forcing more than 100 guests into a bunker.

Hours after the Kabul attacks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Pakistan vowing a new page in US Pakistan relations. Defeating the Taliban and stabilising Afghanistan is a key plank of Washington’s regional strategy against militancy.

Pakistani security forces are also engaged in a bloody campaign against the Taliban near the Afghan border. A bomb killed more than 30 people in a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar later on Wednesday.

The nationalities of the UN staff killed in the Kabul guesthouse attack were unclear. Afghan forces exchanged gunfire with militants for hours inside the house as sirens wailed across the heart of the capital.

”The number right now is six dead, all of them UN staff,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the UN mission in Afghanistan, adding at least nine others were wounded.

The UN mission is helping organise the presidential poll.

President Hamid Karzai’s palace said in a statement several Afghan civilians and police were also killed in the attack. Police said at least one Afghan civilian and three members of security forces were killed.

The attackers wore police uniforms to secure entry into the guesthouse, police said. A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of three of the suspected suicide bombers, apparently ripped apart when they detonated their explosives, lying inside the compound.

Abdul Ghaim, a police officer at the scene, told Reuters: ”We think they [the militants] are Pakistani”.

Many of the militant insurgents in Afghanistan either shelter in neighbouring Pakistan or are themselves Pakistanis.

”Certainly one of the aims of the Taliban attack today was to show that they are a force that can disrupt the poll,” Afghan analyst Qaseem Akhgar said of the run-off.

Female guest missing
At the guesthouse, a Reuters reporter saw a badly burned body being carried out of the building after the shooting stopped. Officials said one female guest was missing inside the building, which was covered by bullet holes and badly damaged, its walls charred and windows shattered.

Karzai, who is running against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in the run-off, condemned the attack as ”inhumane”.

Explosions also hit the foreign-owned Serena luxury hotel and rockets were fired at the building, witnesses and security sources said. No one was injured and there was no major damage. A foreigner staying at the hotel told Reuters more than 100 people were rushed to an underground bunker. A high-profile venue frequented by foreign visitors and diplomats, the hotel was also attacked in January 2008 when six people were killed.

Efforts to stabilise Afghanistan have been complicated by weeks of political tension over the August 20 first round of the presidential poll, which was marred by widespread fraud in favour of Karzai, forcing the run-off.

Eight US troops were killed in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, the Nato-led alliance said, in the deadliest month for US forces since the start of the war eight years ago.

US soldiers make up two-thirds of the 100 000-strong coalition force, with Obama considering proposals to send an extra 40 000 troops or a far smaller number.

Ahead of that decision, the New York Times reported that Karzai’s brother had been getting regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency and was a suspected player in Afghanistan’s lucrative opium trade.

Ahmed Wali Karzai was quoted as denying the report and the CIA neither confirmed nor denied the payments.

The eight US soldiers killed on Tuesday pushed the October death toll to 53, topping the previous high of 51 deaths in August, Pentagon officials said.

As part of his review of US strategy in Afghanistan, Obama is set to meet on Friday with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the military services, the White House said.

Karzai agreed last week to the run-off under international pressure after a UN-led fraud investigation annulled a large chunk of his votes in the August vote.

Karzai’s camp said on Tuesday the run-off must take place even if his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, quits the race. — Reuters