KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan security officials hunted Monday for suspects in the attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai during an attack that killed three people and underscored the fragility of his U.S.-backed government.
Militants also wounded eight people when they fired rockets and automatic rifles at Karzai and other dignitaries during a Sunday ceremony in Kabul to mark the mujahedeen victory over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, which sent Karzai and foreign ambassadors scurrying for cover. Three of the attackers were killed, the government said, but the Taliban said additional attackers were involved.
Sunday's strike launched so close to Karzai was a serious security lapse at a time when the Afghan police and army are expanding and the government is demanding greater control of security, still provided in much of the country by U.S. and NATO-led forces.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the defense ministry, said that the authorities were investigating who could have helped the assailants perpetrate the attack.
The gunfire apparently came from a three-story guesthouse about 300 yards from the stands where Karzai was seated alongside Cabinet ministers and senior diplomats, who all escaped unharmed.
Residents said a 30-minute gunbattle broke out between security forces and gunmen holed up in the guesthouse.
On Monday, Afghan troops were deployed in parts of the city where government officials and foreigners live, while investigators still focused on the area where the attack was launched.
About 100 people were rounded up for questioning, an Afghan intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. Some of those detained have since been freed, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.
Lawmaker Fazel Rahman Samkanai, who was about 30 yards from the president, was killed in the attack. Nasir Ahmad Latefi, a local Shiite leader, and a 10-year boy also died.
Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak said three attackers were killed by security forces, and assault rifles and machine guns were confiscated.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said six militants were sent to target the president, and three them died. He said they were armed with guns, rockets and suicide vests although no suicide bombings were reported.
The initial moments of the attack, which came as a marching band played the national anthem, were broadcast live until TV transmissions were cut. Hundreds of dignitaries could be seen diving for cover.
Less than two hours later, Karzai appeared on state-run TV and said "everything is OK." Appearing calm and smiling, Karzai said "the enemy of Afghanistan" tried to disrupt the ceremony but was thwarted. He said several suspects were arrested.
The live coverage of the assassination attempt will add to the sense of insecurity in the Afghan capital, which has been spared the worst of the violence as fighting has escalated between Taliban insurgents and NATO and U.S.-led forces. The attack raises questions about the ability of the intelligence service, police and army to provide adequate security in the heart of the city.
The fighting left about 8,000 dead last year, mostly militants in the south and east of the country, where Karzai's government has only a tenuous grip and little public support.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer joined several foreign leaders, including neighboring Pakistan, in condemning Sunday's attack.
"The Taliban has demonstrated once again that they will use the most extreme violence to oppose Afghanistan's freedom and democratic development," de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement.
In eastern Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan army troops fought off coordinated insurgent attacks, leaving a dozen militants dead and a dozen others wounded, a U.S. military statement said Monday.
As many as 40 insurgents attacked five military outposts on Sunday in Korangal Valley of volatile eastern Kunar province, using small arms fire, rockets and mortars, the statement said.
The joint force returned fire and called in airstrikes that left 12 militants dead and 12 others wounded, the coalition said. No U.S. or Afghan soldiers were hurt.