KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A suicide vehicle bomb struck a checkpoint in a neighborhood housing United Nations and international aid groups' offices in the southern city of Kandahar early Monday, killing four people and severely damaging a U.N. agency's building, Afghan officials said.
Gunmen then rushed into the neighborhood and seized control of at least one building, sparking a battle with Afghan and NATO forces, Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Razzaq said. The firefight lasted more than two hours before the two insurgents were shot dead, according to a statement from the provincial governor's office.
The combined bombing and assault was the second major attack in three days targeting foreigners or NATO troops in the country, and spotlighted the insurgents' ability to continue to carry out major attacks despite a 10-year NATO campaign against them. The U.S.-led coalition is gradually handing over security responsibilities to its Afghan counterparts and plans to withdrawing its combat forces by the end of 2014.
Immediately after the 6:15 a.m. bomb attack, two insurgents rushed into the area and seized control of an animal clinic near the office of the International Relief and Development organization, said provincial police spokesman Ghorzang, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
The blast caused extensive damage to the offices of the U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR. Associated Press video footage showed large chunks of the building's outer walls blown out, as well as the windows. The street around the building was strewn with rubble.
The insurgents then managed to enter the IRD's office through the UNHCR building, Ghorzang said.
The Taliban, for whom Kandahar is a traditional stronghold, claimed responsibility for the attack. Spokesman Qari Yousef saying the insurgents were targeting what he claimed was a guest house affiliated with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
While UNAMA does not operate a guest house in the area, the clinic and IRD offices entered by the attackers are, however, near guest houses affiliated with both the IRD and the UNHCR. The are is also home to several other international NGO offices and guest houses.
Earlier reports said three security guards in the area were killed, but Mohammad Faisal, an official with the Kandahar provincial media office, said three civilians and one policeman were killed. Three civilians and a Nepalese guard were also wounded, said Faisal.
UNAMA said it was aware of the situation, but that "all our staff, both Afghan and non-Afghan ... have been accounted for," said agency spokesman Dan McNorton.The attack comes two days after the Taliban launched a brazen midday suicide bombing in Kabul, striking a NATO convoy on Saturday and killing 17 people five NATO service members, including one Canadian soldier; eight civilian contractors, including two from Britain; and four Afghans, including a policeman.
Saturday's attack in Kabul underscored the urgency behind the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to expand a security bubble around the city.
With most of the attacks in Kabul blamed on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, that assault reinforced U.S. and Afghan demands that Islamabad do more to curb militant activity and sanctuaries on its territory. Last month, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency an accusation that Pakistan has denied.
While there is no specific information linking Saturday's convoy attack to the Haqqani, investigators say they soon will have evidence the bombing was "Haqqani-related," a western diplomat said Sunday.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation, said it was "very possible" the Kabul attack was the work of Haqqani fighters.
At least 11 of about 15 major attacks in the capital this year can be blamed on the Haqqanis, according to a senior official with the coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss undisclosed investigative reports on the incidents.
The Haqqanis were the focus of two military operations this month that involved tens of thousands of Afghan and NATO troops.
The operations were conducted over nine days in several provinces along the border with Pakistan, More than 200 insurgents were killed or captured. At least 20 of them had ties to the Haqqani group, including 10 identified as leaders of the network.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that the operations against the Haqqanis were conducted in preparation for next year's plan to step up operations to keep insurgents from infiltrating across the Pakistani border and into the capital, especially from the south.
The United States has stepped up criticism of Pakistan and its counterterrorism cooperation, but at the same time has worked to cajole the increasingly angry and resistant Pakistanis into doing more to squeeze militants on its side of the border.
During her visit to the region last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an unusually blunt warning to the Pakistanis, saying they "must be part of the solution" to the Afghan conflict.
Clinton said the Obama administration expects the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services to "take the lead" in not only fighting insurgents based in Pakistan but also in encouraging Afghan militants to reconcile with Afghan society.