As many as a dozen suicide bombers staged synchronized attacks Tuesday on government buildings in a provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan, triggering a day of chaotic fighting that left at least 20 people dead.
Scores of people were injured in the fighting in Khowst, the site of a large U.S. military base. The wounded included at least three American soldiers.
The brazen assault was reminiscent of an earlier attack on the U.S. base, Camp Salerno, in which militants used multiple suicide bombers. This one, however, was aimed at softer targets: the governor’s compound, police headquarters and a municipality building.
At one point, the assailants seized about 20 city employees as hostages; they were later freed. Residents of Khowst, which is close to the Pakistani border, hid in their homes for hours as gunfire rang out in the streets.
The assault was a worrying sign of insurgents’ growing ability to stage sophisticated, multipronged attacks. Militants in the eastern part of the country are thought to have better access to training in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. At least one of the suicide bombers was disguised in a burka, the all-enveloping veil worn by many Afghan women. Insurgents also apparently laid an ambush for a rescue team deployed from the American base.
A U.S. military spokesman said the governor’s compound was hit by three suicide attackers, who were unable to penetrate the complex. They did manage to force their way inside a nearby municipal building.
The upsurge in fighting across Afghanistan has coincided with an increase in civilian casualties during clashes between coalition troops and militants. On Tuesday, an Afghan government commission asserted that 140 civilians were killed in a battle last week in Farah province, in western Afghanistan. The U.S. military has acknowledged bombing the area but said it did not believe all the casualties were caused by the bombardment.
If the Afghan count is correct, the incident would be the most lethal of its kind since the war began in late 2001.
“This was an accident, and we offer condolences,” provincial Gov. Rohul Amin told a somber, ragged assemblage of villagers who trekked to the provincial capital to receive condolence payments from the Afghan government. Relatives received about $2,000 for family members killed and $1,000 for those injured.
“It doesn’t make the pain in my heart go away,” said Abdul Farahi, a trucker whose brother and two nephews were killed and whose wife was seriously burned. “We all have to leave this earth, but this cannot be explained.”
The U.S. military has said it believes the number of civilians killed was much lower than 140. Twenty-five militants were also killed in the fighting, according to the commission, which was appointed by President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai, who visited Washington last week, has been sharply critical of foreign forces over repeated instances of civilian casualties. He has called for an end to airstrikes by Western troops, a demand that U.S. officials have rejected.
The Taliban, meanwhile, on Tuesday mocked U.S. officials over the ouster of the commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was replaced a day earlier by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The move was interpreted as reflecting dissatisfaction by the Obama administration with the course of the war.
The abrupt change in command comes as the first of more than 21,000 additional American troops have begun arriving in Afghanistan. Most will be deployed in the south, the center of the insurgency.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi, reached by telephone, said the ouster showed that American officials knew they were losing the war.
Afghan officials said the appointment was an internal U.S. matter but expressed hope that it would bring about a reduction in civilian casualties.
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.