KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban militants attacked the main Afghan election commission's headquarters Saturday in Kabul, firing on the compound with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns from a house outside its perimeter wall, according to police.
Dozens of employees and other people who had been inside the Independent Election Commission compound took cover in the basement, and no casualties were reported. But two warehouses were hit and set on fire, witnesses said. The Kabul airport, which is on the edge of the IEC compound, closed its runway because of possible dangers to planes as Afghan security forces surrounded the occupied house and traded gunfire with the attackers.
It's the latest in a series of high-profile attacks that come as the Islamic militant movement steps up a campaign of violence to disrupt presidential elections, which are due to be held in a week.
A spokesman for the Independent Election Commission said security already had been increased around the compound because an attack had been widely expected, and all IEC staff members were safe. He said the IEC leadership was away from the headquarters when the assault began.
Explosions were heard when the attack started, according to the spokesman Noor Mohammed Noor, but he did not know what caused them.
Kabul police chief Mohammad Zahir Zahir said three or four attackers were holed up in a neighboring house that had been empty when they occupied it. He said the house is about 800 meters (yards) away from the headquarters, which is inside a walled off compound guarded by a series of watch towers and checkpoints.
He said police were firing at the building from several directions and had the attackers contained.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack but described what would have been a much more ambitious assault, claiming a suicide bomber and gunmen had stormed the IEC compound. He said the IEC and election observers, including foreigners, were holding a meeting at the time of the attack. The Taliban frequently exaggerate in their statements and a meeting could not immediately be confirmed.
Noor denied there was a meeting of observers. A news conference had been planned to discuss election security, but that was canceled, he said.
The deputy of the IEC's media monitoring commission, Ashmat Radfar, who was in the building and fled to the basement with about 40 other people when the attack began. About 15 rocket-propelled grenades had fallen in the area and two warehouses were hit and set on fire, he told reporters after he managed to leave the compound. He said the warehouses did not contain ballots or other important election materials.
Airport authorities said they closed the runway for two hours after the attack started, then tried to reopen it but decided the risk was too high and closed it again. Airport director Yaqoub Rassouli said Emirates airlines and Air India flights had been diverted.
It would have been extremely difficult for the attackers to penetrate the tight security themselves, but the Taliban have staged a number of assaults aimed at showing they are able to strike at will.
On Tuesday, the Taliban also struck another IEC office on the edge of Kabul, with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside while two gunmen stormed into the building, killing four people and trapping dozens of employees inside.
The Taliban also have stepped up attacks on foreigners in the Afghan capital, suggesting that they are also shifting tactics to focus on civilian targets that aren't as heavily protected as military and government installations.
The Taliban targeted an American charity, the Roots of Peace, and a nearby day care center late Friday in the Afghan capital, sending foreigners — including women and children — fleeing while Afghan security forces battled the gunmen. Officials said two Afghan bystanders were killed — a girl and a driver.
Gunmen slipped through security last week into a luxury hotel in Kabul on March 20 with pistols and ammunition hidden in their shoes, then opened fire, killing nine people, including two Afghan children who were dining in the restaurant.
A Swedish journalist was shot to death on the street in a relatively affluent area earlier this month, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.