KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban militants attacked an American charity and a nearby day care center Friday, sending foreigners – including women and children – fleeing while Afghan security forces battled the gunmen. An Afghan girl, a driver and all five attackers were killed.
The assault is the latest aimed at foreigners in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and suggests the Taliban are shifting tactics to focus on civilian targets that aren’t as heavily protected as military and government installations as part of an overall surge in violence ahead of April 5 elections.
It also appeared aimed at sending a message to the U.S. and its allies as the Obama administration presses the Afghan government to sign a security agreement that would allow thousands of international troops to stay after the NATO-mandated combat mission ends in December.
The attack began in a way typical of the Taliban, which claimed responsibility in a statement. A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives in front of the four-story building housing workers with the California-based Roots of Peace, then four gunmen rushed into the compound.
Roots of Peace said the organization’s guards pursued the attackers into the house and killed two of them, while four foreign aid workers – two Americans, a South African and a Malaysian – took cover inside. Two of the foreigners went to the roof while the other two hunkered down in their rooms, said the group’s president, Gary Kuhn.
One man survived by hiding in the closet with clothes pulled over himself, even after a grenade was thrown in his room, Kuhn said from his office in San Rafael, California.
Members of the Afghan National Police rapid reaction force, wearing helmets and bulletproof vests, cordoned off the area.
Kuhn said an adjacent children’s day care center used mostly by foreigners also was hit, although it was unclear if it was actually targeted.
About two dozen foreigners, including women and children, were evacuated from the day care center, which is not connected with Roots of Peace.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said insurgents attacked a “guest house of foreigners and a church of foreigners” and vowed in a statement that “we will keep on killing foreigners.”
Kuhn said he didn’t have more details about the neighboring building, which is separated by a wall. His wife, Heidi Kuhn, said it was “a day care center that does have Christian religious services.” Kuhn had planned to travel to Kabul next week with his son.
Besides the suicide bomber, all four gunmen were killed, ending the standoff at about 8 p.m., Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi said.
An Afghan girl died in the crossfire, Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed Ayub Salangi said. However, Seddiqi said the dead civilians were a driver and an Afghan woman. The discrepancy couldn’t immediately be resolved.
Roots of Peace, founded by the Kuhns in 1997 after Heidi Kuhn survived cancer, is currently running two projects supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as advising Afghanistan’s agriculture ministry. The projects involve helping farmers shift from lower value crops like wheat to more lucrative ones, such as almonds, grapes and pomegranates.
In past years the group, which employees 350 people in Afghanistan and works in all 34 provinces, has worked to clear land mines from farm land.
“It’s just a tragic, tragic, tragic situation. We stand in solidarity with Afghan families. We stand in firm solidarity with Afghan people,” Heidi Kuhn said. Witnesses say several houses caught fire, possibly from the car bomb blast.
Mohammed Sadi, who lives in the upscale neighborhood, said the force of the explosion rattled buildings several blocks away and broke windows in his house. “Then gunfire started and the police blocked all the roads,” he said.
The affluent area, located near parliament, is home to some of the candidates in next month’s elections for president and a provincial council, although it didn’t appear they were the targets.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned the attack “on an organization that only seeks to help Afghans improve their lives and livelihood.”
It was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks targeting places long considered safe havens for Westerners in the country.
Gunmen slipped through security last week into a luxury hotel in Kabul with pistols and ammunition hidden in their shoes, then opened fire, killing nine people, including two Afghan children who were dining in the restaurant.
Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot to death on the street in a relatively affluent area, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, and Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed to this report.
Kim Gamel can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kimgamel