By Elyas Wahdat
KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Afghan security forces put down an attack by Taliban fighters, including suicide bombers, in a volatile southeastern town on Monday while parliament debated President Hamid Karzai’s new cabinet choices.
The Taliban attack in the town of Gardez, 100 km (60 miles) southeast of Kabul, showed the Afghan insurgency had not abated despite a gradual resolution of a long political impasse following a fraud-tainted presidential poll in August.
The militants, some wearing suicide vests packed with explosives, attacked a key police building in Gardez before they were surrounded in a market, a local official and residents said.
“The fighting is over. All of the assailants have been killed,” Rohullah Samoon, a spokesman for the governor of Paktia province, said by telephone without indicating how many attackers there had been.
Earlier he said at least three had been killed.
A Taliban provincial commander said five of the Islamist group’s fighters, equipped with suicide vests and heavy weapons, had launched the assault.
Attacks in Afghanistan this year have spiraled to their highest levels since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Washington is sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to stem the mounting violence, with NATO allies also contributing thousands more. Civilian and military casualty tolls have reached record levels this year.
The mounting violence has coincided with a long period of political uncertainty. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was confirmed last month as the winner of the August 20 vote despite a U.N.-backed panel finding widespread fraud in his favor.
Karzai presented his cabinet nominations to parliament on Saturday, a list which kept most of the technocrats in key ministries but changed or reshuffled lesser portfolios.
Parliament must approve Karzai’s 23 nominations but a vote is not expected before the weekend at the earliest.
While largely praised by Western leaders who want to see Karzai act more vigorously against endemic corruption, the cabinet nominations disappointed many Afghans who said it showed little evidence of change.
Karzai has hit back at his critics, saying his choice of ministers is representative of all Afghanistan. But the list highlights his need to placate a wide range of forces in a country still largely divided on ethnic and regional lines.
Karzai retained power after key regional chieftains, some with dubious human rights records, threw their support behind him, often to the dismay of Western leaders and diplomats who feared he had made deals in return for their support.
Western leaders with troops fighting in Afghanistan, and who pump billions of dollars of aid into the country, became more critical of government corruption after Karzai’s election win.
POLICE, CIVILIANS WOUNDED
Seven civilians and four policemen were wounded during the Gardez clashes, which lasted for nearly four hours, Samoon said.
Residents near the scene said the main road linking Gardez with neighboring provinces and the capital had been closed.
Small- and heavy-arms fire was heard in the heart of the town after the insurgents attacked the police building close to other government offices, residents said.
Shopkeepers pulled down their shutters in the center of the town, a frequent target of Taliban militants. In July, nine people were killed when Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers, some dressed as women, launched a similar attack.
A spokesman for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said he had no information about the incident and could not say whether foreign troops were involved.
There are already some 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan battling the Taliban-led insurgency, which is strongest in the south and east but has spread this year into formerly peaceful areas in the north and west.
The Taliban often target Afghan and foreign security forces in an attempt to overthrow the Afghan government and drive international troops out of the country.