Militants target India mission in Afghanistan

A member of the Afghan Quick Reaction Force firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during an operation near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday. No Indian casualties have been reported so far.
A member of the Afghan Quick Reaction Force firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during an operation near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday. No Indian casualties have been reported so far.PHOTO: REUTERS

Afghan troops battle to flush out gunmen from building near consulate in northern city

AFGHANISTAN • Afghan forces battled to end an hours-long gun and bomb siege near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif city, while gunmen pressed a lengthy assault on an airbase near the India-Pakistan border.

Separately, a suicide bomber struck near Kabul's international airport, underscoring the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

The lethal attacks threaten to derail Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bold diplomatic outreach to arch-rival Pakistan following his first official visit to Afghanistan last month. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the raid on the diplomatic mission in northern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of assaults on Indian installations in the country.

Gunfights and grenade explosions echoed as commandos battled to flush out militants holed up in a building near the consulate, with powerful provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor overseeing the operation.

"The attackers are enemies of Afghanistan who do not want peace," Mr Noor told reporters. "We will suppress them as soon as possible."

But nearly 17 hours after the siege began, security officials said they were proceeding cautiously in the residential area to limit civilian casualties.

"Our clearance operation is going on near the consulate," government spokesman Munir Farhad said yesterday. "Since it is a residential area, we are proceeding very cautiously after overnight fighting to avoid civilian casualties."

An Indian official, who was hunkered down in a secure area within the diplomatic enclave, said all consulate employees were safe and accounted for.

"We are being attacked," the official said by telephone from inside the heavily guarded compound.

"Fighting is going on," he said soon after the fighting erupted late on Sunday evening.

Mr Vikas Swarup, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that no Indian casualties had been reported so far.

The attack followed a deadly raid over the weekend by suspected Islamist insurgents on an air force base in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Seven soldiers were confirmed killed in the raid on the Pathankot base.

"The operation continues at the base. (With) intermittent firing... we are moving step by step to sanitise the area," an army spokesman in Pathankot said yesterday.

The spike in violence comes a week after Mr Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years.

The visit immediately followed a whirlwind tour of Kabul, where Mr Modi inaugurated an Indian-built parliament complex and gifted three Russian-made helicopters to the Afghan government.

India has been a key supporter of Kabul's post-Taleban government, and analysts have often pointed to the threat of a "proxy war" in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan. Pakistan - the historic backer of the Taleban - has long been accused of assisting the insurgents, especially with attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.

The latest unrest coincides with a renewed international push to revive peace talks with the resurgent militant movement.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to hold a first round of dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China on Jan 11 to lay out a road map for peace.

Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Taleban, hosted a milestone first round of talks last July but the negotiations stalled when the insurgents belatedly confirmed the death of long-time leader Mullah Omar.

The attack on the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif marks the latest attack on high-profile Indian targets in Afghanistan. Nine civilians were killed in August 2013 when suicide bombers targeted the Indian consulate in the main eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

In May 2014, gunmen launched a pre-dawn attack on India's consulate in the main western Afghan city of Herat before being repelled by security forces.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Militants target India mission in Afghanistan'. Print Edition | Subscribe