KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Afghan troops backed by NATO helicopter gunships repelled an attack Friday by Taliban fighters armed with machine guns and suicide vests in the heart of a major city in southern Afghanistan, witnesses and officials said.
Six militants were killed and six government forces wounded during the assault on Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province. The assault occurred nearly two weeks after a similar attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul — part of a Taliban campaign to undermine public confidence in the government's ability to provide security.
The violence came a day after President Hamid Karzai reached out to the Taliban, announcing he would convene a peace conference to discuss proposals and would reach out to foot soldiers and "our disenchanted brothers who are not part of Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks."
The outgoing U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway, reportedly met with members of the Taliban leadership this month to discuss the possibility of peace talks with the government.
"He wanted to test for himself and get his own conclusion about the mindset of some of the Taliban members as he is leaving the job he is in, but also in preparation for the London conference," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said of Eide's meetings. "He is not going to be part of our efforts going forward."
The U.N. has announced Eide will be replaced by Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura, the former U.N. representative in Iraq, starting on March 1.
Officials said Friday's attack began about 10 a.m. when the insurgents opened fire from a hotel under construction near an army barracks. NATO said the Afghan troops backed by attack helicopters contained the gunmen in the vacant, four-story building.
The fighting lasted more than seven hours as both sides fired at each other with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Store owners fled a nearby market area and streets elsewhere in the city emptied as authorities encouraged residents to stay home.
"I was in my shop when I heard the loud noises from the fighting," said Haji Mohammad Karim. "We all closed our stores and went home. The city was like a ghost town. The only people on the streets were security forces."
"If this kind of fighting continues, how can we conduct business?" he said.
Deputy provincial governor Abdul Sattar Mirzekwal said two of the attackers blew themselves up while four other bullet-riddled bodies were found in the debris. Security forces reported four soldiers and two policemen wounded.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the Taliban had dispatched a team of seven men armed with suicide vests and machine guns to attack the local branch of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan and a guesthouse used by government officials in the city.
Ahmadi said 20 foreigners had been killed and wounded, but Afghan officials said no deaths were reported other than the militants.
Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial government, said officials had received tips in recent days that the Taliban planned an attack on government buildings in Lashkar Gah.
Afghan forces sent reinforcements to the area after insurgents hiding in the vacant building opened fire at a nearby army barracks on the western edge of the city, NATO said in a statement. Two rockets also slammed into a nearby area as the fighting began, it said.
The Taliban have attempted similar commando-style attacks in Kabul, most recently on Jan. 18 when seven gunmen and suicide bombers were killed after a five-hour assault. Five Afghan civilians and security forces also died in that fighting.
The brazen daylight attacks by a handful of determined militants dramatize the vulnerability of urban areas and undermine public confidence in Karzai's government and its U.S.-led allies — even as the United States and its international partners are rushing 37,000 reinforcements to join the eight-year war. Helmand is expected to be a major focus of the surge.