KABUL, Afghanistan – Gunmen wearing explosives vests stormed a bank in eastern Afghanistan Saturday as government employees were waiting to be paid, killing at least eight people and wounding scores of others in a standoff punctuated by deadly explosions.
At least 48 people were being treated in the main hospital in Jalalabad, the site of the attack, hours after the midday siege on the Kabul Bank branch, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. Others had already been discharged. He said seven of the dead were Afghan police officers. Three others were also killed, he said, but investigators were trying to determine if two of them were the suicide attackers.
Gunmen launched the raid by firing on bank guards, then overpowering them to seize control of the bank, said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the provincial governor. Afghan security forces surrounded the building and heard an explosion inside, he said. That was followed by a gunbattle and another blast, then further clashes between attackers and police. He put the death toll as high as 18.
The wounded included civilians, police and Afghan soldiers, said Dr. Saif ul-Rahman, a physician at the hospital. He said flying shrapnel and gunshots caused the injuries.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said was aimed at Afghan security forces lined up to collect their pay.
President Hamid Karzai and NATO condemned the attack.
"Terrorists attacked innocent civilians who were in the bank for their daily business or receiving their salaries. Once again, this un-Islamic act of terrorists shows that they don't want Afghan people to live in peace and prosperity," Karzai said.
NATO has been working to recruit and train Afghan security forces in greater numbers as they prepare to take the lead in securing the country. The goal is to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan's security to local forces by 2014.
It was the second deadly attack in Jalalabad this month. The other — a pair of blasts — killed a civilian and wounded six police officers.
In the capital, Kabul, Karzai called for Afghans to have the final say in whether the U.S. should be allowed to maintain a long-term military presence in the country — even as America's top diplomat insisted that the U.S. does not seek permanent bases in the country.
Discussion of permanent bases resurfaced in recent weeks after a leading U.S. senator proposed their establishment last month. Karzai's stance reflects a desire to assert greater control over the country's future as U.S. troops prepare to begin drawing down this year.
Speaking in response to a question at a press conference, Karzai said a number of American officials have raised the issue of establishing permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan as part of broader negotiations on a long-term security partnership. He didn't say whether any formal requests had been made.
The Afghan people should have the final say on any bases, Karzai said, adding that the decision would need to take into consideration the concerns of Afghanistan's neighbors, which include Iran, Pakistan and China.
"The view of our neighboring countries is very important," Karzai said. "We are not living on an island ... Not only do we have neighbors, but they are big countries in the region. We are living in a region with tensions."
Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator from the state of South Carolina, said in January that having a few U.S. air bases in Afghanistan would give Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban and benefit the region. He said he wanted the U.S. to have "an enduring relationship" with Afghanistan to ensure it never falls back into militant hands.
The Taliban criticized the proposal, saying allowing permanent bases would be tantamount to a permanent occupation.
In a speech Friday in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear the United States does not seek to establish permanent bases in Afghanistan.
"The United States will always maintain the capability to protect our people and our interests. But in no way should our enduring commitment be misunderstood as a desire by America or our allies to occupy Afghanistan against the will of its people," Clinton said, according to a text of her prepared remarks to the Asia Society.
Two NATO service members were killed Saturday in insurgent attacks — one in the south and one in the east. The coalition didn't provide the exact location of the deaths or the nationalities of the personnel.
A total of 23 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan so far this month. Last year was the deadliest of the nearly decade-long war for international troops, with more than 700 killed. This compares to about 500 in 2009, previously the worst year of the war.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed reporting.