Taliban militants unleashed car bombs at the U.S. Consulate in western Afghanistan on Friday morning, triggering a firefight with security forces in an attack that killed at least two Afghans and wounded 17. The U.S. said its personnel from the mission were safe and that most of them were temporarily relocated to Kabul, while American forces secured the site.
The attack in the city of Herat - along with a suicide truck bombing in the country's east that wounded seven Afghans on Friday - raises concerns of spreading insecurity in Afghanistan as U.S.-led troops reduce their presence ahead of a full withdrawal next year. It came two days after the 12 anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and was a harsh reality check for Afghans who had spent the previous day and a half celebrating their nation's first international soccer championship.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi took responsibility for the Herat attack in a phone call with The Associated Press. Afghan and U.S. officials, meanwhile, offered slightly different accounts of what happened - differences which could not immediately be reconciled.
According to Gen. Rahmatullah Safi, Herat province's chief of police, the attack began around 6 a.m. when militants in an SUV and a van set off their explosives-laden vehicles while others on foot fired on Afghan security forces guarding the compound in the city, which lies some 650 kilometers (400 miles) from Kabul.
An Afghan police officer and an Afghan security guard were killed, though it was not clear whether they died in the explosions of the two vehicles or in the gunfire, Safi said. At least seven attackers were killed, including the two drivers of the explosives-laden vehicles, he said.
Herat hospital official Sayednaim Alemi said at least 17 people were wounded, and that two dead bodies were brought to the medical center. It was not immediately clear if the dead were victims mentioned by Rafi.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement that the assault began around 5:30 a.m., when "a truck carrying attackers drove to the front gate, and attackers - possibly firing rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles - started firing at Afghan forces and security guards on the exterior of the gates. Shortly after, the entire truck exploded, extensively damaging the front gate."
Rafi said U.S. special forces secured the compound and that no attackers managed to breach it. Harf's statement said "American security personnel" were among the responders, and that "it appears American and contract security personnel addressed any attackers who managed to enter the compound."
Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said that "all consulate personnel are safe and accounted for." He added that most of the staff have been temporarily relocated to the Afghan capital, but that some essential personnel remain in Herat. He declined to give further details.
Footage broadcast on Afghanistan's Tolo television network showed Afghan police dragging away a badly bloodied man from the scene. Rubble and twisted pieces of metal lay strewn in a seemingly wide area near the consulate, the footage showed.
Afghan and U.S. officials condemned the attack.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry said it "illustrates both the desperation of the enemies of Afghanistan and their heinous, wanton disregard for the lives of Afghanistan's peace-loving citizens."
U.S. Ambassador to Kabul James Cunningham said in a statement: "We are deeply saddened by this senseless loss of life, and our prayers go out to the victims and their families. We hope for the speedy recovery of those injured."
Herat lies near Afghanistan's border with Iran and is considered one of the better developed and safer cities in the country, with a strong Iranian influence. Friday's attack there underscored the growing reach of the Taliban, who once mostly concentrated their attacks in the east and the south, but in recent years seem to be able to strike with more frequency in the once-peaceful north and west.
The U.S. Consulate is located in a relatively sparsely populated part of the city, and the attack took place on Friday, a day of rest.
U.S. and other foreign missions are attractive targets for militants in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but their high walls and strict security also make them difficult to penetrate. The militants have often staged so-called "complex attacks" that include suicide car bombers and fighters on foot.
Last month, a botched bombing against the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Jalalabad killed nine people, including six children. No Indian officials were hurt. And two years ago to the day, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at the U.S. Embassy, NATO offices and other buildings in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The other attack on Friday morning took place in eastern Paktika province's Sar Hawza district, said Mokhlis Afghan, a spokesman for the provincial governor. Police recognized the vehicle was dangerous and shouted at the driver to stop but he ignored them.
Police then opened fire, and the bomber detonated the explosives, causing a powerful blast, the spokesman said. Four police were wounded as were three members of the Afghan national army, he said. The road was badly damaged, and windows on nearby buildings were shattered.
Paktika province lies along the border with Pakistan, and Taliban and al-Qaida affiliated militants are active in the region.
Friday's attacks came in the wake of nationwide celebrations after the Afghan soccer team won the South Asian Football Federation Championship on Wednesday. The win produced a rare moment of national unity in this ethnically divided country, and euphoric Afghans of all backgrounds had poured into the streets to express their joy over the victory.
Also Friday, NATO said a service member had died "as a result of a non-battle related injury" in eastern Afghanistan. The incident was under investigation, the statement said. It did not give the name or nationality of the service member, as is standard practice.