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KABUL - A nine-hour siege Monday in the heart of Afghanistan's capital left at least seven people dead, including three police officers, and brought a normally bustling section of the city to a standstill amid explosions and gunfire.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which started around 5:30 a.m., when at least four attackers stormed the lightly-defended headquarters of the Kabul Traffic Police, before taking up positions and firing light and heavy weapons down on an adjacent compound that houses the Afghan Border Police. During the attack a car bomb went off outside the headquarters and at least two of the attackers detonated suicide vests, according to a Ministry of Interior statement.
A traffic policeman on the scene said the attackers had found the building's armory, which contains heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. Kabul's police chief, however, denied in an interview that the attackers had reached the armory.
Dozens of large explosions rocked the neighborhood on the west side of the city throughout the day, punctuated by automatic gunfire and what sounded like rocket propelled grenades. Smoke rose from the traffic police building after several of the explosions, and Afghan commandos could be seen running along rooftops. Witnesses reported seeing Norwegian special forces soldiers, who were involved in quelling a major attack at a lakeside resort in June.
The International Security Assistance Force confirmed its troops assisted in the operation but would not give details, except to say no coalition troops were killed or wounded.
"I just finished morning prayers and I was getting into bed to sleep a little longer and suddenly there was a big blast," said Shahpoor Fikri, an employee at a nearby Ministry of Power and Water office. "It shook the whole office. When I looked outside there was smoke outside the Traffic Police Directorate and then a lot of shooting started."
Around 2:30 p.m. there was a final burst of gunfire, an explosion and a plume of smoke from a third floor window of the traffic directorate. In the aftermath, possibly as many as five fighters and three police officers were killed, in addition to four police officers and eight civilians wounded, Kabul Police Chief Ayoub Salangi said. Salangi denied the attackers had successfully reached the armory.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed 24 Afghan and foreign soldiers were killed in the attack and 31 injured, though the Taliban often greatly exaggerate casualties. Mujahid said there were only four attackers, though he confirmed they were killed.
Winter usually sees a lull in violence in Afghanistan, as insurgents head to safe havens in Pakistan. Monday's attack, however, was the second in a week to hit the capital. Last week, suicide bombers attacked the country's security services headquarters, killing two guards.
In a sign of how accustomed Kabulis are to these types of attacks, business hummed along as usual in neighborhoods outside the police cordon around the attack site, with hawkers selling their wares, residents stopping at roadside kebab shops, and the streets packed with people.