KABUL: An hours-long battle in the Afghan capital involving insurgent rocket attacks and military airstrikes ended Tuesday with the death of two militants, authorities said.
The assault came as President Ashraf Ghani was making a speech marking the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday, days after he offered the Taliban a conditional three-month ceasefire.
It was not clear who carried out the attack.
“Two attackers were involved. The enemy was firing mortars,” General Murad Ali Murad, commander of Kabul´s garrison, told a press conference.
They were killed and at least six civilians or security force members were injured, he said.
Police said the attackers used rockets, several of which landed in at least two areas of Kabul around 9:00 am.
During the battle an Afghan army helicopter swooped in low near the Eidgah Mosque in a central district and fired a rocket at a militant position, sending a plume of dust into the sky.
Shoppers who moments earlier had been buying livestock for the Eid feast sprinted for shelter as cars swerved in the road to flee the fighting.
Blasts and gunfire could be heard as security forces cordoned off the area.
The mosque is near the presidential palace where Ghani was making his speech, which was being aired live on Facebook when the attack began.
The president can be seen pausing as multiple blasts are heard in the background, some sounding nearby, before stating: “This nation is not going to bow to these rocket attacks.”
The attackers appeared to be in a building behind the mosque, which was partially destroyed in another attack several years earlier and is not believed to have been in use for Eid.
Footage aired during the attack on Tolo News showed black smoke emanating from the area near the mosque while fire trucks and security vehicles rushed to the scene.
Interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish confirmed that militants had taken over a building near the mosque and fired several rockets.
Danish later told Tolo the militants were using rocket-propelled grenades and mortars to target parts of the city.
“Choppers are flying over the site and the security forces are busy defusing two explosive-packed vehicles,” wrote interior ministry strategic communications chief Bahar Mehr on Facebook.
Ghani unveiled the government’s latest ceasefire gambit during an Independence Day address late Sunday, saying security forces would observe the truce beginning this week — but only if the militants reciprocated.
The truce offer was welcomed by the United States and NATO after nearly 17 years of war, though it was not clear if their forces in Afghanistan would also participate.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to Ghani’s proposal, but have vowed to release “hundreds” of “enemy prisoners” to mark the Eid holiday, which began in Afghanistan on Tuesday.
It was not clear which prisoners they were referring to.
The move followed an extraordinarily violent week in Afghanistan that saw that Taliban storm the provincial capital of Ghazni — just a two-hour drive from Kabul — and press the fight against security forces across the country, with estimates suggesting hundreds of people may have been killed.
Analysts were mixed over Ghani’s proposal, with some saying the government’s move was a sign of desperation after recent heavy bloodshed, while others said the trust-building measure was integral to paving the way for negotiations.
It came after an initial ceasefire in June, the first such truce since the US-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
For just three days thousands of insurgents poured into cities across Afghanistan, eating ice cream and posing for selfies with security forces to celebrate.
The brief respite spurred hopes that a new path was opening for possible peace talks in the country to end the nearly 17-year-old war.
Pakistan condemns attack
The Pakistan Foreign Office in an official tweet condemned the attack and urged all parties to respond to Afghan government’s offer for a ceasefire.
“Pakistan condemns rocket attacks on Kabul close to the presidential palace during Eid prayers and urges all parties to respond to the Afghan Government’s ceasefire offer,” Foreign Office spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal tweeted.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also issued a strong condemnation of the attack. In a statement, he said, “The cowardly strikes carried out on the occasion of a religious festival reflected the defeatist mindset [of the terrorists].”
“We are with the Afghan government and people in order to completely defeat this cowardly mindset,” he added.
Meanwhile, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed deep concern on the recent rocket strikes in Afghanistan earlier on Tuesday morning and over the loss of precious innocent lives.
“There is no support to any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan from Pakistan side,” he said, adding that “the alleged return of injured and dead terrorists from Ghazni is incorrect.”
However, General Bajwa emphasised that Afghanistan needs to look inward as the problem resides inside Afghanistan.
“Thus, the solution thus remains on making substantive progress on Afghan reconciliation efforts as well as on the speedy implementation of Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Stability (APAPPS),” he said.