KABUL: Gunfire and explosions rocked Kabul Friday as Taliban militants attacked a guesthouse used by an anti-landmine aid group, the latest violence to hit the city ahead of next weekend’s presidential election.
At least three Afghans were wounded in the attack on the guesthouse of US-based Roots of Peace, which works to replace minefields with vineyards, the organisation’s country director said.
Several foreigners were evacuated from the building in the west of the city, an AFP photographer at the scene said.
It is the fourth significant attack this year in the Afghan capital targeting foreigners or places where foreigners congregate.
The Taliban have vowed a campaign of violence to disrupt the ballot on April 5, urging their fighters to attack polling staff, voters and security forces in the run-up to election day.
Friday’s assault, involving four attackers, began when they detonated a car bomb in front of the building, according to deputy interior minister Mohammad Ayoub Salangi.
“It is our guesthouse under attack,” Roots of Peace country director Sharif Osmani told AFP.
“Three Afghans are injured and three other people are inside.”
Sayed Gul Agha Hashemi, the head of Kabul police’s criminal investigation branch, told AFP: “The police have now occupied the roof and are trying to clear the building of the terrorists.”
An AFP photographer at the scene saw a number of foreigners being escorted from the building by security forces.
Kabul Police chief Mohammad Zaher said when the attack began around 4:00 pm (1200 GMT) there were six foreigners inside the building.
Zaher told AFP they were two Americans, a Peruvian, a Malaysian, an Australian and a guard he described as “African”. There was no immediate confirmation of these nationalities.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and said the target was a foreign guesthouse they alleged was also used as a church.
Roots of Peace has been working in Afghanistan, one of the world’s most heavily-mined countries, since 2003.
They try to clear minefields laid during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the civil war of the 1990s and convert the land to agricultural use.
Since 1989, when Soviet forces left Afghanistan, more than 4,000 people have been killed and 17,000 injured by mines, according to an estimate by the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan.
– Rising violence –
The assault comes just three days after Taliban militants stormed an office of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul, killing five people.
Last Thursday four Taliban gunmen smuggled pistols into Kabul’s high-security Serena hotel and shot dead nine people including four foreigners.
The victims also included Agence France-Presse journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of their three children.
Those attacks followed the daylight shooting of a Swedish radio journalist and an assault in January on a Lebanese restaurant that killed 21 people including 13 foreigners.
The vote to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, barred constitutionally from seeking a third term, will be Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic handover of power.
But there are fears of a repeat of the bloodshed that marred the 2004 and 2009 elections, when the Taliban displayed their opposition to the US-backed polls through violence.
Another bloody election would damage claims by international donors that the expensive intervention in Afghanistan has made progress in establishing a functioning state.
Moreover, the surge in attacks on foreigners in Kabul will raise fears that independent poll monitors will be unable to work effectively, threatening the credibility of the April 5 vote.
A disputed result would put whoever wins the election in a weak position as Afghan security forces take on the Taliban without NATO’s 53,000 combat troops behind them.
US-led NATO combat troops are withdrawing from the country after 13 years of fighting the militants insurgency, which erupted when the Taliban were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.