Suicide Attacks Strike Afghan Capital

In Afghanistan, suicide bombers have carried out a series of attacks in the heart of the capital, Kabul. The blasts killed at least 17 people in an area of the city where a number of foreigners live. The Taliban has claimed responsibility. The attacks come as a major operation is under way in southern Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban from its strongholds.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

Suicide bombers attacked Afghanistans capital today. The early morning bomb blasts killed at least 16 people in a section of Kabul where a number of foreigners live. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

We are going to talk about this with NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who has covered Afghanistan for years now. She is in Kabul. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how did this attack unfold?

NELSON: Well, at about 6:40 this morning, there was a large explosion. We could see the plume of smoke from our compound. And right afterwards gunfire erupted. And basically what seems to have happened is that two suicide bombers and a gunman had targeted a couple of guest houses in the neighborhood called Shadano(ph), which is sort of an upscale, middle class to upscale neighborhood, a lot of shopping centers, and as you mentioned, foreigners live there.

And so the car bomber detonated his explosives and completely leveled one guesthouse catering to Indian workers, and then focused on a second guesthouse that cater to Indian doctors. There was a suicide bomber and a gunman who went there and one suicide bomber detonated himself and then the gunman exchanged gunfire with the police for about three hours.

It was early in the morning on the equivalent of Sunday here. I mean, Friday is like Sunday and its also a holiday, its Prophet Muhammads birthday. And so there werent that many people in the streets that one might expect, but again, since people were still in their beds, the impact was pretty significant.

INSKEEP: So the targets here seem to be Indians in these guesthouses. They're small hotels in Kabul, and this was an area where you would not have expected an attack.

NELSON: One would think. There's some feeling. I mean, the Taliban claimed responsibility. They didnt really say why they went after these particular places, but the feeling here is that perhaps they were trying to push back because there have been a lot of arrests and deaths of Taliban leaders in the last couple of weeks and they just wanted to show they were quite well and alive and functioning here.

INSKEEP: And we're going to talk about the move against the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan and around Afghanistan in a moment. But first, I want to understand if people were surprised that the attackers were able not only to operate within the capital but inside a previously relatively secure area of the capital.

NELSON: Absolutely. I mean, you are talking about a neighborhood where at least significant portion of the houses will have armed guards in front of it. Plus you have security checkpoints set up not only by Afghanistans intelligence agency, but by police. And certainly they've made it very difficult to go from one end of town to the other without being checked at least once or twice. So the question remains, how do these guys keep getting through? Or are they in town already? Or is the police focusing too much effort on other people? For example, when I returned yesterday from Marjah, there was so much traffic at one security checkpoint that they started to let all the cars through with the exception of cars with foreigners in it.

And when I mean foreigners, I mean Westerners - you know, checking for Ids. And so perhaps its not as effective as it could be, but they have increased security here in a way that you would think would prevent this sort of thing from happening.

INSKEEP: Soraya, you mentioned just being back from Marjah. Of course, thats where the U.S. and its allies have been engaging in an offensive in recent weeks and weve heard some of your dramatic reports from Marjah. Having returned from there now, whats your impression of how things are going?

NELSON: Well, it certainly had quieted down a little bit. It seems like the Marines were focused on securing the areas that they had taken, trying to clear them of IEDs, trying to make sure that the gunmen who were still running around and taking potshots were, in fact, chased off or killed. And so they have been able to bring enough calm to certain key parts of Marjah that the Afghan government has been able to set up shop there, if you will, to actually start conducting some services, offering cash for work programs, things like that.

INSKEEP: And when you came away from Marjah and returned to Kabul in the last day or so, did you get a sense in the capital that people felt that this offensive was having the desired political effect?

NELSON: Well, I just arrived yesterday afternoon and unfortunately, with this attack this morning, I think peoples thoughts had been elsewhere. But certainly the coverage of the Marjah offensive has been fairly negative in the Afghan press from what Ive been hearing from my Afghan colleagues who work here. Again, I think there's just a lot of doubt about there's a lot of concern, I should say, about civilian casualties, even though there have been fairly - I mean, considering the scale of this operation, were talking maybe a couple of dozen people whove been killed and perhaps even less, and then of course some wounded.

But even so, thats a real sensitive topic and so I think people are concerned that this is going to create more consternation, more fear. Obviously, there are a lot of people from Marjah who fled the fighting; that also doesnt create a really positive image. So again, I think this whole public relations effort that has to come now to show that it really was worth it and that having the Afghan government in there really can make a difference, I mean, thats going to be key.

INSKEEP: NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kabul. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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