Islamic State militants in Afghanistan on Wednesday claimed their first attack on a major city, after an assault near the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad that killed at least seven members of the Afghan security forces.
The claim, posted on the Telegram channel used by the Islamic State group’s central command to announce attacks, was a sign that the main group in Syria and Iraq is increasingly willing to tout its Afghan affiliate as a supported group, even as officials say the level of coordination and contact remains limited.
The attack in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, has also furthered concerns that militants who have broken away from the Taliban and claimed loyalty to the Islamic State group were ready to start spreading their brutal campaign into urban areas.
The Islamic State cell has fought both the Taliban and the government in Nangarhar over the past year, carving out an ever-bigger area of control, officials say.
The attack, which took place during the busy morning hours as visa applicants lined up near the consulate, began after a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest near a police vehicle, witnesses said. Then two gunmen wearing police uniforms overran an Afghan government guesthouse near the Pakistani consulate and fought Afghan forces for almost three hours.
The attackers were quickly surrounded, though, avoiding extensive civilian casualties in a bustling part of the city at peak hours.
“After the explosion, two men started firing,” said Ismail Khan, 35, an auto-rickshaw driver. “One bullet hit my shawl before I dropped to the ground.”
During the fighting, Afghan security forces found explosives in two other areas on the street and detonated them, officials said. Children trapped in a nearby school were evacuated by the police and local residents.
Nangarhar Province police chief General Fazal Ahmad Shirzad said that the guesthouse was heavily damaged in the fighting and that it was still unclear whether that house or the consulate next door was the intended target.
“Seven security forces were killed, and seven security forces and four civilians were wounded,” Shirzad said.
The assault is the latest in a wave of militant violence striking major cities in Afghanistan since the start of the year. The targets have included a restaurant in Kabul frequented by expatriates, the Indian consulate in the northern province of Balkh and a house in Jalalabad that had been the residence of a Pakistani diplomat, but was vacant.
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