Afghan security forces yesterday had surrounded a small group of insurgents who barricaded themselves inside a hotel on the second day of clashes in the southern city of Kandahar, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.
The estimated two or three fighters holed up in the Kandahar Hotel were all that remained of a Taliban force that on Saturday unleashed a major assault on government buildings across the city.
Spokesman Zemeri Bashary said a firefight broke out when security forces began to clear the hotel, which is located next to the intelligence agency headquarters and a police station. The hotel had been used to stage Saturday’s daylong attacks against the two buildings. Troops were being cautious because most of the insurgents were believed to be wearing suicide vests, he said.
NATO troops and helicopters could be seen supporting Afghan forces in the clash. Security forces were apparently waiting for the militants to run out of ammunition.
Fighting stopped overnight after Afghan forces had secured the government buildings that had been attacked, Bashary said, although sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard around the city.
So far, he said a total of 23 attackers had been killed as well as two members of the security forces. Another 40 people were wounded. Of the dead attackers, eight detonated their suicide vests. Security forces captured another four, Bashary added.
The size and scope of the attack, which began at noon on Saturday, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a yearlong campaign to secure Afghanistan’s south and Kandahar in particular. The city was the birthplace of the Taliban and is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban said more than 100 fighters took part and said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city. It was the most ambitious attack since the insurgents declared the start of a spring offensive last month against NATO and Afghan troops.
Bashary said government forces had secured all the buildings attacked, including the governor’s office, the intelligence agency and the police station, among others.
“Except for the Kandahar hotel, all other places have been cleared by the Afghan forces,” Bashary told reporters in Kabul.
He added that nearly all the insurgents killed so far had escaped late last month from Kandahar city’s main Sarposa prison. More than 480 militants escaped through a 300m long tunnel that took five months to dig.
Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa said the insurgents did not have the ability to disrupt life in Kandahar.
The Kandahar city attacks came a day after the Taliban said Osama bin Laden’s death would only serve to boost morale, but a militant spokesman insisted it had been in the works for months before the al-Qaeda leader was killed by US commandos on Monday last week.
Government officials said they had no accurate estimate of how many attackers were involved, but NATO estimated 40 to 60 militants took part.
The Taliban usually exaggerate the scale of their attacks, and it is unlikely the movement would have the strength or the numbers to actually take over Kandahar. NATO said the insurgents did not control any part of the city on Saturday.
The attack, however, shows the determination of the insurgency in the face of a massive international push to remove the Taliban permanently from the city that was once their capital.