KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban suicide bomber and six gunmen attacked the Afghan parliament yesterday as lawmakers met to consider a new defence minister, and another district in the volatile north fell to the militants as they intensified a summer offensive.
The brazen assault on the symbolic centre of power, along with territorial gains elsewhere, highlight how NATO-trained Afghan security forces are struggling to cope with worsening militant violence.
Fighting has spiralled since the departure of most foreign forces from Afghanistan at the end of last year. The insurgents are pushing to take territory more than 13 years after US-led military intervention toppled them from power.
Yesterday’s attack began as lawmakers met with the new acting defence minister, Masoom Stanekzai. He is the third candidate so far for the key security post, and his appointment must be confirmed by parliament.
A Taliban fighter detonated a car loaded with explosives outside parliament gates, said Ebadullah Karimi, spokesman for Kabul police, raising questions about how the driver got through several security checkpoints.
Six gunmen took up positions in a building near parliament, he said, but never breached the compound’s gates.
Essa Khan, a soldier inside the parliamentary compound when the attack took place, said he shot dead three militants as they tried to storm inside before killing the rest in a prolonged gunbattle that also involved other troops.
“Everywhere there was smoke and dust,” Khan told Reuters.
“I knew that it was the Taliban from the first moment. I grabbed this gun and shot three of them dead,” added the 28-year-old, whose actions have played prominently on Afghan media in a rare PR success for the beleaguered armed forces.
Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said all lawmakers were safe. TV pictures showed the speaker sitting calmly and legislators leaving the building, engulfed in dust and smoke, without panicking.
A woman was killed and around 30 civilians were wounded in the attack, according to Rahimi.
He said the assailants were armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. Some lawmakers’ bodyguards fired sporadically during the attack, hampering the response by Afghan forces, he added.
Police will investigate how the attackers got so close to parliament.
“We have appointed a delegation to find the weak point or points and report it back to us,” Rahimi said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility.
“We have launched an attack on parliament as there was an important gathering to introduce the country’s defence minister,” he said by phone, referring to Stanekzai.
Farhad Sediqi was one of several lawmakers who criticised security agencies for not preventing the attack.
“It shows a big failure in the intelligence and security departments of the government,” he said.
In Washington, a US State Department spokesman said that despite the assault, Afghanistan’s security forces were improving.
“Although the insurgents have executed a number of violent attacks since the announcement of the 2015 fighting season, including the attack on parliament, the (Afghan security forces) have demonstrated their growing capability to provide security,” the spokesman said.