Security officers run along a rooftop at the traffic police headquarters… (Massoud Hossaini, AFP/Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — At least two police officers were killed Monday when five gunmen armed with suicide vests and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the headquarters of the Kabul traffic police department, setting off a firefight that lasted more than eight hours, Afghan officials said.
It was the second brazen assault in less than a week in the Afghan capital, which has enjoyed a measure of safety compared with other parts of the country in recent years. The national intelligence agency was attacked Wednesday. Although Islamist militants have staged such high-profile attacks before, the twin strikes against Afghan security installations suggest they are trying to undermine public confidence in the nation's security forces ahead of the departure of most foreign troops next year.
Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said the low death toll Monday should reassure Afghans that their forces are capable of defending the country against the Taliban-led insurgency.
Only two of the assailants managed to detonate their explosives at the entrance to the headquarters, which is on the same road as the parliament building in west Kabul, Sediqi said. The rest were shot and killed by police commandos inside the complex.
Neighborhood shopkeepers, whose tiny photo and copy stores were reduced to rubble Monday, said more needs be done to strengthen the country's security.
"In less than a week, we have had two explosions in the capital city. That adds to our fears," said Ahmad Zubai, 24, as he surveyed a row of flattened businesses and smashed cars. "We were working here to make some money to support our families. Now everything is destroyed."
Mohammad Farid, 48, pulled a Koran from the debris of his shop and kissed its pages.
"Muslims don't do such things," he protested. "Thank God that we ourselves were not here, otherwise we would have lost our goods and our lives."
The attack began about 5.30 a.m.; residents preparing for morning prayers said they saw a flash and heard a thundering explosion.
Police commandos, advised by NATO special forces, quickly surrounded the complex. But Sediqi said they proceeded carefully because they did not want the three insurgents inside to detonate their suicide vests.
"This office is full of valuable documents," including vehicle registration and other records, he said. "Our forces had to make sure these documents were not destroyed."
About an hour into the firefight, a car bomb on a timer detonated at the entrance to the complex, Sediqi said. Secondary explosions aimed at first responders are a common tactic used by militants to inflict maximum casualties. But security forces had noticed the suspect vehicle and used another entrance, Sediqi said.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions continued until about 2 p.m., when authorities announced the standoff was over.
In addition to the two police officers killed, four others were injured along with seven civilians, Sediqi said.
Mohammad Ayub Salangi, Kabul's police chief, put the death toll at three officers and said eight civilians were wounded, most of them in the car bombing. The discrepancies in the casualty toll could not immediately be reconciled.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the militants, said the target was a compound where police were receiving training from foreign advisors.
"We have been planning this attack for three months in order to inflict heavy casualties on the police as well as the foreigners," he said in a phone call.
Sediqi said the traffic police, who are mostly unarmed, represented a soft target for the insurgents.
"I think they are very desperate … because they failed last week when they attacked the National Directorate of Security," the Afghan intelligence agency, he said.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber detonated a minivan packed with explosives outside one of the agency's heavily fortified compounds, killing a guard and injuring numerous civilians. Security forces shot and killed five other assailants before they could enter the compound.
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.