Afghan forces rescue Red Cross workers after insurgent attack

A senior Afghan official said security forces rescued seven foreigners working for the International Red Cross on Wednesday after a two-hour-long gun battle with insurgents at a guest house in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said the three women and four men were safe after police killed an insurgent who had remained holed up inside the compound. He said one of the male aid workers was lightly wounded.

The other of the two assailants had detonated a suicide vest at the building's gate at the beginning of the attack, killing an Afghan security guard, Sediqi said.

Security forces were searching surrounding buildings in case any other attackers were involved and managed to escape, he added.

A spokesman for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, Abdul Hasib Rahimi, said all organization's foreign staff that were inside the compound are safe. He said they were checking to see if any Afghan staffers were there at the time, but added that local employees had left for the day an hour before the attack. The foreigners live in the compound, he added.

A total of 35 Red Cross staff, including the seven foreigners, work at the facility, he said.

"We contacted our foreigners, they are safe. We are now contacting Afghan staff," Rahimi said.

Sediqi said Afghan forces arrived at the scene of the attack shortly after the suicide bombing at the door, which had cleared the way for the other attacker to enter.

"As a result of the shooting exchange the gunman was killed and all seven foreigners who were inside the building were rescued safely. Only one foreigner has minor injuries to his leg, but the six others are unharmed. Right now the security situation is under control," Sediqi said.

The attack in the eastern city of Jalalabad is the second major assault against an international organization in five days. Militants launched a similar operation against a U.N.-affiliated group in Kabul last week that killed three people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and it is unclear why insurgents would want to target the Red Cross, which not only carries out humanitarian work around Afghanistan but also is the conduit for families to communicate with detainees taken off the battlefield, including the Taliban.

The Red Cross warned last month that security was deteriorating across Afghanistan as militants flood the battlefield and conduct attacks in what could be the most important spring fighting season of the nearly 12-year-old war.

The violence comes just five days after Taliban gunmen backed by a suicide car bomber attacked the Kabul offices of the International Organization for Migration, killing two Afghan civilians and a police officer. The assault sparked an hours-long street battle and left another 17 wounded, including seven IOM staff members.

The IOM is a U.N.-affiliated agency assisting returning Afghan migrants as well as those displaced by fighting.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack on the IOM guest house in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul, a relatively uncommon operation by the group targeting an international aid organization.

The Taliban and other militants have unleashed a wave of bombings and assassinations around the country, testing the ability of the Afghan security forces to respond with reduced help from international forces, who have begun a withdrawal that will see most foreign troops gone by the end of 2014.

This year is crucial for Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition is expected to hand over most security responsibilities in the country to its own security forces, sometime in the late spring. Foreign military forces are then expected to begin a massive withdrawal of forces that will culminate at the end of next year.

Earlier, seven insurgents wearing police uniforms and bomb-laden vests attacked a government compound in Panjshir, a usually secure province in eastern Afghanistan. One police officer was killed and another was wounded.

The Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, has ramped up its assaults on government forces and officials since launching its spring fighting campaign earlier this month. While the attacks have grown more frequent in many parts of Afghanistan, Wednesday's violence was of note because it took place in in eastern Panjshir province, a normally peaceful area in a valley that was the heart of the anti-Taliban resistance until the U.S. invasion in late 2001.

Governor Kramuddin Karim said the attackers targeted the government complex in the provincial capital of Bazarak, and that all seven militants were killed.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack in an email to journalists.

Provincial police chief Qasim Jangalbagh said the insurgents were wearing police uniforms, and that three of the attackers blew themselves up and four were killed by police during the assault. The government complex was empty because of the early hour, Jangalbagh said.

Jangalbagh said a station wagon with 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of explosives that the insurgents were driving did not blow up. He added that one of the seven insurgents managed to flee the scene, but later blew himself up.