GARDEZ, Afghanistan – Suspected Taliban militants armed with bombs, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launched near-simultaneous assaults Tuesday on Afghan and U.S. facilities in two eastern cities, killing six Afghan police and intelligence officers.
The attacks in Gardez and Jalalabad may have been aimed at relieving pressure on Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan — the focus of U.S. and British operations against the hard-line Islamic militants.
A quick response by Afghan police and soldiers prevented higher casualties. Eight insurgents were killed and one was captured in the two attacks, officials said, adding that none got away.
Nevertheless, the assaults showed that the Taliban are capable of mounting complex attacks in different parts of the country, stretching the capabilities of U.S. and allied forces locked in the bloodiest fighting of the Afghan war.
Militants, some of them wearing explosive belts and disguised in women's burqa robes, launched the attacks in late morning, storming the governor's compound, the intelligence department and the police department in Gardez and the U.S.-run airfield in Jalalabad about 90 miles to the northeast.
In Gardez, three intelligence officials were killed when a rocket exploded inside the intelligence department building. Three policemen were killed when one of the attackers blew himself up in front of a Gardez police station, according to deputy provincial police chief Ghulam Dastagir, adding that police shot and killed another would-be bomber before he could detonate his explosives.
Four other attackers were shot and killed at the police station and the governor's compound, Dastagir said. At least two bombers were wearing burqas, presumably to conceal the explosives, officials said. Bits of the blue burqas could be seen on the bloodstained sidewalk and hanging from nearby trees hours after the attack.
At nearly the same time, three militants tried to attack the U.S. base at Jalalabad. U.S. and Afghan troops killed two of the attackers and captured a third, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
In western Afghanistan on Tuesday, police in Nimroz province detained five Afghans suspected of planning homicide attacks, according to provincial Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad. All had come from neighboring Iran, Azad said.
The attacks in Gardez began just as tribal elders and government officials finished a meeting at the governor's compound to discuss security measures planned for the Aug. 20 presidential election, deputy Gov. Abdul Rahman Mangal said. It was unclear if the attacks were timed to kill those at the meeting.
Attackers fired a rocket at the governor's headquarters but there were no casualties.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attacks. He said 15 militants — all in suicide vests — took part in the Gardez attacks, but officials said they believed all the assailants were killed.
Taliban fighters have launched several complex attacks during the past year in Kabul and Kandahar, usually involving multiple homicide bombers and gunmen armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Analysts believe Al Qaeda fighters provide the training that help Afghan extremists carry out such attacks.
In May, Taliban fighters launched a complex attack in the eastern city of Khost 40 miles east of Gardez. Twenty people died and three American troops were wounded.
The attacks Tuesday could have been aimed at diverting resources from the southern province of Helmand, where U.S. Marines and British soldiers are battling the Taliban for control of the center of the country's lucrative opium poppy trade. Opium is a major source of funding for the Taliban.
British military officials announced Tuesday that a British soldier was killed the day before in Helmand as he tried to defuse a roadside bomb — the weapon that has accounted for more than two-thirds of allied casualties suffered in recent fighting. He was the 18th British soldier killed in Afghanistan in July — the deadliest month of the war for both U.S. and NATO forces.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said an American soldier was killed in a vehicle accident, raising the U.S. death toll in July to 32.
Elsewhere, 10 Taliban were killed and three others wounded when a bomb they were making exploded accidentally Monday in a house in Ghazni province, provincial police said.
The U.S.-led invasion of 2001 drove the Taliban from power. But the militants regrouped as the U.S. diverted military resources to Iraq and have stepped up attacks over the last three years. They now control wide swaths of countryside in the south and east and have been making inroads in the north.
A record 68,000 U.S. troops will be in the country by fall as President Obama's administration increases its forces in Afghanistan while preparing to draw down its military presence in Iraq.