Two Taliban suicide bombers struck near a US base in Kabul yesterday, killing two Afghan guards in the heart of an area filled with foreign forces and embassies.
The attack came despite increased security ahead of a Muslim holy day which last year saw one of the capital’s deadliest attacks.
The bombers apparently meant to target the American base but were spotted by security guards as they approached on foot.
The guards fired on the assailants, killing them, but not before one of their vests exploded, said General Mohammad Daoud Amin, the deputy provincial police chief. Two Afghan security guards were killed and five civilians injured in the morning explosion, he said.
The blast reverberated around Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan district.
An alarm started going off at the nearby US Embassy, warning staff to take cover.
The area is home to many high-ranking Afghan officials, international organisations and the headquarters of the international military coalition.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing in an email to reporters.
The attack came as foreign and Afghan forces tightened their watch over the capital ahead of the holy day of Ashoura on Saturday, when Shiite Muslims commemorate the seventh century death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
Last year, the commemoration saw the first major sectarian attack since the fall of the Taliban regime. In that strike, a suicide bomber on foot detonated his vest amid scores of worshippers at a Shiite shrine, killing 56 people and wounding more than 160 others.
Attacks in Kabul are relatively rare and more recent strikes have not been particularly deadly, but have shown the continued ability of the insurgents to penetrate the security cordons that surround the city. The last attack before yesterday’s strike was last week, when insurgents fired four rockets into the city, killing one person. The rockets hit near the airport, a private television station and close to a compound used by the Afghan intelligence service.
Yesterday’s bombers were also armed with grenade launchers, said Gen Amin. He said they were stopped near a building which was under construction near the US base.
An international coalition vehicle was also damaged in the attack but there were no initial reports of casualties among the foreign forces, said Jamie Graybeal, a Nato troops spokesman.
Police had already set up extra checkpoints around Kabul and specifically near shrines to search cars and people in the run-up to the Ashoura.
Previously, Gen Amin said all his forces were “in the first security alert position” and doing their “best to provide good security and prevent any possible incident on Ashoura”.
In another development, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta says America’s fight against al-Qaida terrorists is taking a new direction – moving beyond declared war zones like Afghanistan and requiring more partnering with foreign commandos.
In a speech to a Washington think-tank Mr Panetta said al-Qaida had been badly damaged by a decade of US-led counter-terrorism operations around the world. But he stressed that the group remained a threat.
To achieve what he called “the beginning of the end” of al-Qaida, Mr Panetta said the US would need to finish the war in Afghanistan in a way that prevented the group from re-establishing major havens in the country.
He also said the US would have to keep pressure on al-Qaida in Pakistan, while continuing to go after al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.