Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Suicide attackers burst into the main United Nations compound in the western city of Herat on Saturday, setting off a battle with Afghan police and troops. All four assailants were reported killed, and the U.N. said its staff was unharmed.
The incident unsettled the aid community in Afghanistan at a time when a number of international humanitarian and development groups are considering curtailing or halting projects in response to an upcoming ban by President Hamid Karzai on the use of private security guards. Western diplomats are pressing the Afghan leader to ease the restrictions, which are to take effect at the end of the year.
The attack in Herat, the biggest city in western Afghanistan, began with an explosion at the one of the complex's entry gates, provincial officials said. Three assailants then managed to push their way inside. One or more of them wore a burka, or a body-length veil, said Naqib Armin, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
The compound, on the city's edge near the airport, houses several U.N. agencies that employ both foreign and Afghan staff members. Approximately 40 people would have been inside at the time, U.N. spokesman Dan McNorton said.
One attacker was killed at the outset of the strike when he set off explosives in a car, provincial authorities said. Two others apparently detonated their suicide vests, and the last was shot by police.
Herat province is a relatively calm part of the country, so much so that it is being considered as one of the first places where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force will try to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces.
With Western military officials claiming major success in driving the Taliban from strongholds in Kandahar province, however, the insurgency has been making a push into parts of the country that were previously relatively safe, such as the north.
Attacks in Kandahar have diminished since the Western military offensive began in earnest about a month ago, but insurgents are still able to move about despite the security cordon around the city. A motorcycle-borne suicide bomber at a main traffic circle in the city killed one passerby and injured two others Saturday, provincial authorities said.
Outside Kandahar city, veteran New York Times photographer Joao Silva was seriously injured Saturday when he stepped on a buried bomb, the newspaper reported on its website.
Although NATO officials say Taliban fighters have been mainly driven out of the district, Arghandab, the insurgents have seeded the area with improvised bombs, which are the principal killer of Western troops.
Most of the 30,000 U.S. troops who arrived this year in President Obama's military buildup are deployed in the south, mainly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
NATO troops were not involved in responding to the attack in Herat, said Air Force Lt. Col. Regina Winchester, a spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. However, witnesses said Western forces were seen helping cordon off the scene, and a NATO helicopter circled overhead. NATO troops in the west of Afghanistan are under Italian command.
McNorton, the U.N. spokesman, said it was "too early to speculate" about steps the world body might take in response to the attack on its compound. The U.N. sent hundreds of foreign staffers out of the country after a Taliban attack last October on a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul, the capital, in which five of its foreign staff members were killed.
This year has been a perilous one for foreign aid workers in Afghanistan. In August, insurgent gunmen killed a 10-member medical team, including six Americans, in Badakhshan province, in the north. This month, a Scottish development worker was killed during an attempt by U.S. troops to rescue her after she was abducted by the Taliban.