Insurgents' fight halted on 2nd day in Kandahar

Afghan security forces on Sunday killed a few insurgents who had barricaded themselves inside a hotel in the southern city of Kandahar, ending a two-day battle that left more than two dozen militants dead, officials said.

The battle raised new questions about the effectiveness of a yearlong campaign to secure Afghanistan's south and Kandahar in particular. The city was the birthplace of the Taliban and is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban attack on Kandahar was the most ambitious since the insurgents declared the start of a spring offensive last month against NATO.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said NATO forces had expected the insurgents to try to carry out spectacular attacks during the spring and summer fighting season. He said Afghan forces managed to deal with the attacks in Kandahar "calmly and capably."

The fighting began around noon Saturday when a Taliban force launched a major assault on government buildings across the city.

The hotel is next to the intelligence agency headquarters and a police station and was used to stage Saturday's daylong attacks against the two government buildings. Afghan forces secured the government buildings, bringing fighting to a temporary halt Saturday night, though sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard around the city.

The Taliban plans for a major spring offensive and announced on April 30 that it had begun.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said firefights resumed Sunday when security forces began to clear the hotel.

In the two days of fighting, 25 insurgents and two members of the Afghan security forces were dead. Another 40 people were wounded. Of the dead attackers, nine had detonated their suicide vests. Security forces captured another four, Bashary added.

The standoff ended after dark Sunday following an all-day siege of the Kandahar Hotel, where the remaining two insurgents had holed up for a last stand. Afghan security forces killed one insurgent and another blew himself up with a suicide vest, said provincial government spokesman Zalmai Ayubi.

He said security forces were searching the hotel, looking for any remaining Taliban.

Nearly all the insurgents killed so far had escaped late last month from Kandahar city's main Sarposa prison, Bashary said. More than 480 militants escaped through a 300-meter long tunnel that took five months to dig.

The Taliban claimed more than 100 fighters took part in the Kandahar attack and said their goal was to take control of the city.

Government officials said they had no accurate estimate of how many attackers were involved, but NATO, estimated 40 to 60 militants took part and said the insurgents did not control any part of the city on Saturday.

The Taliban usually exaggerate the scale of their attacks, and it is unlikely the movement would have the strength or the numbers to actually take over Kandahar.

But the two-day attack shows the determination of the insurgency in the face of a massive international push to remove the Taliban permanently from the city that was once their capital.

"We have said that the insurgent campaign focus for this year is to retake the areas that they have lost," Petraeus told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. He added that this attack "shows that they are willing to die."

Petraeus has said that a surge of U.S. troops last summer helped coalition forces take, and hold, territory that was long held by the Taliban in the south and other parts of Afghanistan.

While saying the coalition campaign eroded Taliban capacity to organize, plan and stage attacks, NATO officials, including Petraeus, have stressed that gains are "fragile and reversible" and that a drawdown of U.S. troops that is to begin in July will depend on conditions on the ground.

"It has certainly pushed them out of some very important areas," Petraeus said. "That's not to say that they can't carry out a sensational attack .... But what we can do is reduce their effectiveness and frequency."

Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa said the insurgents did not have the ability disrupt life in Kandahar.

"Their aim and goal is just to show their presence in this region. They just want to frighten the people of Kandahar and disrupt their business. But they will not succeed this time. They will fail, they should understand this and join us to live in peace," Wesa said.

The Kandahar attack came a day after the Taliban said Osama bin Laden's killing by U.S. commandos would only serve to boost morale, but a militant spokesman insisted it had been in the works for months.

Wesa cautioned that the Taliban should not be underestimated.

"The Taliban have strength and they are also helped by other countries, so we should not deny this fact, Wesa said, referring to Taliban safe havens in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. "But we can say that our forces can defeat them and can stand against them in every battle."

The persistent violence has complicated the situation for the U.S. and many NATO allies who are hoping to pull out their troops. President Barack Obama wants to start drawing down forces in July, and the alliance has committed itself to handing over control of security in the country to Afghans by 2014.


Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, Heidi Vogt and Patrick Quinn contributed from Kabul.