Smoke rises from a building where insurgents were believed to have holed… (Massoud Hossaini / AFP/Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Insurgents attacked the military side of Kabul’s international airport at dawn Monday, jarring residents of the Afghan capital awake to the sound of explosions and gunfire. The area houses a key NATO strategic headquarters, but that part of the complex reportedly was not breached.
The attack began around 4:20 a.m., just before sunrise in Kabul, with those living in the neighborhood reporting several blasts that sounded like rocket-propelled grenades, followed by automatic gunfire. All commercial flights from the adjoining civilian airport were suspended.
According to Mohammad Ayob Salangi, Kabul’s chief of police, several attackers wearing suicide vests occupied a tall building under construction on the northern perimeter of the airport, giving them a vantage point to fire down at the military facility. This led to a protracted gun battle with Afghan security. Initial reports suggested there could be as many as 10 attackers.
The gunmen used heavy weapons, Salangi said, adding that a vehicle filled with explosives was detonated by Afghan security forces near the building where the attackers had holed up. About four hours into the attack, at least one insurgent responsible for launching rocket-propelled grenades was shot dead, the official added, with no immediate casualties on the government side.
In a statement emailed to reporters, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. It said a group of martyr attackers stormed the military side of the international airport used by the Americans, bringing heavy casualties on Afghan and international security forces. Insurgents in Afghanistan have a history of exaggerating their results and making claims for attacks they didn’t initiate as part of their use of psychological warfare, analysts said.
The military side of Kabul Airport has an air wing for the Afghan Air Force. It also handles landings, takeoffs and servicing of NATO transport and other aircraft, while the NATO coalition's Joint Command headquarters runs day-to-day operations of the nearly 12-year-old war against insurgents.
Insurgents frequently carry out their attacks in the early morning, which allows them to prepare overnight with less chance of detection and to strike when security is just kicking into gear for the day.
Lt. Quenton Roehricht, a spokesman with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, said Afghan police took the lead in repelling the attack, with international forces acting as advisors able to “provide support” if required.
The stakes are particularly high this year as Afghan army, police and paramilitary take over greater security responsibility in advance of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014. Afghan security forces face equipment and training shortcomings and morale problems.
Striking high-profile targets such as Afghan and NATO bases achieves several objectives, analysts said. These spread fear and respect for the insurgency among ordinary Afghans and those working with foreign troops, which can help the Taliban and other groups in recruiting more members. They send a message that even heavily guarded areas aren’t safe and that the insurgency can strike at will, potentially hastening the timing of the NATO troop drawdown. And they provide a show of strength to other Afghan groups and parties vying for power after the foreigners leave.
Monday’s attack is the latest since the start of this year’s spring offensive, when the insurgency picks up its operations after the often-brutal Afghan winter. The Taliban vowed this year to redouble its attacks on foreign troops, United Nations and other diplomatic targets, and Afghans assisting foreigners.
In addition to direct attacks and roadside bombs favored by the Taliban, the insurgency has made use of “insider” attacks by disgruntled Afghan soldiers and police, adding to distrust between Afghan forces and their foreign counterparts. On Saturday, an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire on a base in eastern Paktika province near the border with Pakistan, killing an American civilian and two American soldiers.
Special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Magnier reported from New Delhi.
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