NATO, Afghan forces still battling Taliban attackers in Kabul

KABUL, (Reuters) – NATO attack helicopters circled  over an unfinished building in the centre of Kabul last night in an operation to flush out Taliban fighters, more  than 15 hours after the insurgents launched their biggest  assault on the Afghan capital.

It was not known how many fighters were still holed up in  the high-rise building near Kabul’s diplomatic district from  where they fired rockets at heavily-fortified U.S. embassy and  NATO headquarters.

“Forces are still working on clearing operations,” a  spokesman of the NATO-led International Security Assistance  Force told Reuters, in what is turning out to be the longest  sustained attack on Kabul since the U.S.-led invasion a decade  ago.

A source in the office of the Kabul police said fighting  began again early on Wednesday, but he had no more information.

A Taliban spokesman in a text message to Reuters said the  group’s fighters were well and fighting foreign forces.

A squad of about five insurgents took over the shopping  centre under construction on the outskirts of Kabul’s diplomatic  district on Tuesday, armed with rocket-propelled grenade  launchers, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide vests.

Explosions were interspersed with gunfire all afternoon and  several rockets landed in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan  district, near the British and other embassies. One hit a school  bus but it appeared to have been empty at the time.

The gun battle around Abdul Haq square went on into the  early evening, with three attackers killed and one or two still  at large nearly eight hours after the assault began, the  Interior Ministry said.

The insurgents also launched attacks in three other areas of  the capital, in the biggest challenge to foreign forces as they  prepare to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces  across the country by 2014.

A Senate panel yesterday approved a $1.6 billion cut in  projected U.S. funding for Afghan security forces, part of a  significant reduction in outlays for training and equipping  Afghan army and police expected in the coming years.

At least 9 people were killed and 23 wounded in the four  attacks, and the ability of the Taliban to penetrate Kabul’s  vaunted “Ring of Steel” was a clear show of strength ahead of  the handover.

“The scale of today’s attack is unprecedented,” said Andrew  Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“There was almost certainly either a break-down in security  among the Afghans with responsibility for Kabul or an  intelligence failure.”

The U.S. and British embassies and the NATO-led coalition  said all their employees were safe.

Violence is at its worst since U.S.-backed Afghan forces  toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of  foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties.

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