Taliban Fighters Attack U.S. Embassy In Kabul

Taliban fighters took up positions in a downtown Kabul building and opened fire on the U.S. embassy as well as other buildings in the neighborhood. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Quil Lawrence for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. The sense of security in the heart of the Afghan capital was shaken today by gunfire and explosions. Several teams of Taliban fighters carried out coordinated attacks on the U.S. embassy, NATO headquarters and other buildings in Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's get out of here. Let's get out of here. Go.

NORRIS: Rocket-propelled grenades aimed at the embassy instead hit civilians, including a van carrying school children. Afghan and U.S. forces began returning fire in what became an hours' long gunfight. At least six Afghans were killed, including four policemen. NATO and the U.S. embassy say they have sustained no casualties. NPR's Quil Lawrence was at the scene of the attacks today and he joins us now. Quil, tell us more about what happened today and what you were able to see and hear.

QUIL LAWRENCE: We approached the scene after witnesses said that suicide bombers had struck near a traffic circle about a quarter of a mile east of the U.S. embassy. But then, we beat a hasty retreat after bullets and RPG's, rocket-propelled grenades, started flying down. It appeared that the team of insurgents had scaled to the top of the 14-story unfinished building, construction site. And the rockets that they were shooting at the U.S. embassy and the NATO headquarters, some of them were flying wildly off target and landing hundreds of yards past the U.S. embassy.

I saw one hit just behind a minivan carrying a group of kindergarteners. Some of them appeared to have received just minor cuts, luckily, and survived to run and take cover. We know one rocket did hit inside the U.S. embassy and wound several Afghan staff and some Afghans who were applying for U.S. visas. We were able to climb up to some rooftops at a safe distance and then heard some returning fire, but it took about an hour before U.S. forces, probably Special Forces, arrived in helicopters and they were able to engage with the suicide bombers who were inside the building.

Rumors were flying around Kabul that there were more suicide bombers. It appears there were seven in all.

NORRIS: And what happened to those men that were holed up inside that 14-story building?

LAWRENCE: As it approached midnight local time, the police had said that they had killed all but two of them who might have still been hiding inside this 14-story building.

NORRIS: Quil, has the Taliban been able to penetrate Kabul security quite like this before?

LAWRENCE: Well, this is the third sort of spectacular assault in as many months where insurgents staged a complex attack on a high profile target inside the city, but never really in 10 years have they gotten so close to the fortified area around the embassy, the airport, the NATO headquarters and the very large U.S. military base. Afghan authorities are already claiming that some security forces, perhaps with Taliban sympathies or anti-American feelings, must have helped the insurgents get so much ammunition and explosives into the most secure part of the city.

And while casualties were low considering the scale of the attack, they still really put a huge dent in the confidence of Afghans I've spoken with in Kabul after each of these events.

NORRIS: Now, as I understand, Kabul is one of the areas that has been turned over to the Afghan control, at least in matters of security. Will that be re-thought now?

LAWRENCE: Both NATO, American and Afghan sources say that they are not going to change course, that they are heading for a transition to Afghan control of security in 2014. All morning, the city was in sort of a lockdown. It wasn't clear if they'd had some advance warning of this attack or if there were other events, VIPs visiting. I was actually having trouble making my appointments on time this morning because many streets were closed. But all that said, the insurgents managed to get seven suicide bombers into two different sections of town, a lot of ammunition onto a building overlooking the U.S. embassy.

And it certainly highlights the question of whether Afghan forces are improving quickly enough to take over security in three years' time.

NORRIS: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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