Kabul – Suicide attackers stormed a British compound in the Afghan capital Friday, killing at least eight people in a series of explosions and more than eight-hour gunfight on the anniversary of the country's independence from Britain.
Three Westerners -- a South African and two Britons -- were inside the compound when a suicide bomber detonated explosives packed in a car outside the British Council. Another suicide bomber rushed inside the compound and blew himself up. The twin explosions shattered windows a third of a mile (half a kilometer) from the site.
Two British women, both teachers, hid in a safe room inside the building throughout the ordeal, according to Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, an international charity that gives leadership training and does other work toward a post-conflict Afghanistan.
"Clearly, they are deeply shocked. They were inside the compound for a very long period of time," Davidson said.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack which began around 6 a.m. in the western part of the Afghan capital.
The attack comes as Afghan forces have started to assume responsibility for security, a gradual process preparing for the expected end of foreign troops' combat mission in 2014. By staging attacks in the capital, the Taliban hope to show that they remain a potent force despite taking heavy casualties from last year's build up of U.S.-led coalition forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, saying strikes on specific targets show that the insurgents are weak and cannot stand and fight the Afghan national security forces.
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said eight people died and 16 others were wounded. Earlier reports said at least 10 people had been killed. Five Afghan policemen, a security guard whose nationality was not immediately known and an Afghan municipal worker were among the dead, according to Kabul police official Farooq Asas.
The U.S.-led coalition said that a NATO service member was among the dead, but did not disclose the trooper's nationality. New Zealand special forces were partnered with Afghan forces who fought the insurgents.
"This was a vicious and cowardly attack, but is hasn't succeeded," British Prime Minister David Cameron said. "There has been a tragic loss of life of Afghan police and others."
Cameron said he had spoken with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and commended him for the "incredibly brave hard work of the New Zealand special forces."
Britain's Foreign Office said all militants involved in the attack were killed.
William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul that the suicide car bomber breached a wall surrounding the council, allowing the second suicide bomber to get inside the compound. He said all British nationals were safe following the attack. The standoff lasted so long because Afghan security forces had to clear the council room by room.
The insurgents wrestled weapons and ammunition from the guards at the compound, said Azizullah, an Afghan policeman who uses only one name. Afghan security forces dispatched to the scene said at least three insurgents fought from a secure bunker inside the compound with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Asas, the police official, said he had counted five suicide bombers. One detonated the car outside the compound, one set off an explosion inside while at least three more got inside the compound on foot. Hours into the battle, two more blasts occurred, part of the building was on fire and smoke covered the area, according to a reporter for The Associated Press at the scene. Two high schools and several auto repair and auto parts shops were damaged.
Afghan troops led the assault on the insurgents, but NATO troops were on the scene in an advisory role.
The walled compound of the British Council, first established in Afghanistan in 1964, is located in an upscale residential area. It consists of two buildings, one is a two-story building and the is other a single-story structure.
The attack came on the same day that Afghans celebrated Independence Day, marking the day the country achieved full independence from Britain in 1919.
In June, 21 people were killed at a Kabul hotel, including nine insurgents, with militants fighting NATO and Afghan troops for five hours with rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombs.
Separately, the coalition reported that a NATO service member was killed in a roadside bombing Friday in southern Afghanistan. The coalition did not release the nationality of the troop or disclose other details about the death. So far this year, 389 foreign service members have been killed in Afghanistan.