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Taliban gunmen and bombers storm bank in Afghanistan, kill 18

Insurgents open fire on people waiting in line and two bombers detonate explosive belts at a Kabul Bank branch in the city of Jalalabad. The Taliban say the latest in a series of strikes targeted soldiers who draw their pay from the bank.

February 20, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Smoke rises from the area where gunmen and bombers stormed the Kabul Bank branch in the city of Jalalabad.
Smoke rises from the area where gunmen and bombers stormed the Kabul Bank… (PO / Pajhwok Afghan, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — It was lunchtime, and it was a Saturday, the first day of the Afghan workweek. In the city of Jalalabad, as elsewhere, plenty of people needed to make a stop at the bank.

For scores of them, this quick errand turned into a nightmare. In the latest of a series of methodical and deadly strikes in Afghanistan's largest cities, gunmen and bombers stormed a busy bank branch in the main urban hub of eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 18 people and injuring more than 70, provincial authorities said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the attack was aimed at Afghan police officers and soldiers who draw their monthly pay through Kabul Bank, the troubled financial institution that was targeted.

"In that branch, the puppet regime's military … receive their salaries," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said.

Ahmadzai Abdulzai, a spokesman for the government of Nangarhar province, said the assailants killed a bank guard as they forced their way inside, then opened fire on the long lines of people waiting to draw money or make deposits.

Of those killed and injured, most were civilians, the spokesman said, but the dead also included the deputy police chief and the head of criminal investigation.

Witnesses described screams and panic as customers tried to flee the building. Security forces cordoned off the district amid the din of gunfire and explosions.

"Police tried their best to rescue people, but it was very, very difficult," Abdulzai said.

Robbery did not appear to be a motive, the authorities said. At least seven attackers were thought to have taken part, including two bombers who managed to detonate their explosives belts. The five other attackers were killed by police gunfire, officials said.

High-profile insurgent attacks have also taken place this month in the south's biggest city, Kandahar, and in the capital, Kabul.

Coordinated onslaughts by teams of bombers and gunmen on targets including a police station and a shopping mall appear aimed at sowing fear and chaos. They seem designed to demonstrate insurgents' ability to smuggle in fighters and weapons into city centers, a means of challenging government forces and the Western military at a time of year when battlefield confrontations typically drop off because of winter weather.

President Hamid Karzai and the NATO force condemned Saturday's attack as a cowardly strike on innocent civilians.

Kabul Bank is for many the symbol of high-level corruption in the Karzai government. The bank nearly collapsed last year after making millions of dollars in what may be unrecoverable loans to well-connected shareholders and others with links to the government.

The International Monetary Fund has been highly critical of the Karzai administration's reluctance to act decisively to uncover wrongdoing; Karzai's government in turn has accused the international community of mishandling the crisis.

laura.king@latimes.com

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