KABUL, Afghanistan — Ten terrified international aid workers huddled inside a fortified room in Kabul for two hours during a Taliban attack until they were rescued by Afghan police, the aid group said Sunday. A NATO commander said the dramatic operation bodes well for the country's future without foreign forces.
An Afghan police officer and two civilians were killed. The top commander of the international military coalition said the relatively low number of casualties was a sign of how Afghan forces have "markedly improved" as they increasingly take over responsibility for protecting the country ahead of most foreign troops' withdrawal next year.
That militants were able to launch two attacks in the capital in a little over a week – another car bomb killed six Americans and nine Afghan bystanders eight days before – prove how fierce a fight Afghan forces face. Still, Maj. Gen Joseph Osterman, director of operations for the coalition, said he has seen "marked improvement" over previous years.
"This particular one was very impressive," he said.
Richard Danziger, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration, thanked police for the rescue during Friday's Taliban assault with a car bomb and attackers wearing suicide bomb vests and wielding shoulder-fired grenade launchers. He also praised the group's armed Nepalese guards, five of whom were wounded.
"Both the police and our ... guards, they held their ground and fought for two hours until they found a time when they could grab our staff and take them out," Danziger said at a news conference with his deputy, Enira Krdzalic, who survived the siege.
All four of the attackers were killed. A six-year-old Afghan girl initially reported dead turned out to be among the 17 people wounded, Sediqqi said.
Four IOM staff were wounded, including one Italian woman who was badly burned by a grenade. Danziger said earlier police reports that one of the Nepalese guards died was not true.
Danziger, who was out of Afghanistan during Friday's siege, said he was "mystified" as to why IOM was targeted. Insurgent assaults on aid groups are relatively rare, though attacks have hit U.N. guest houses in the past. The IOM is a U.N.-affiliated agency assisting returning Afghan migrants as well as those displaced by fighting. Danziger said the staff would resume work Monday in temporary quarters.
The Taliban claimed it attacked CIA trainers for the Afghan security forces, but Danziger stressed that the group has no affiliation with the American spy agency.
When the car bomb slammed into the IOM's southeastern gate just after 4 p.m. on Friday, about 12 international staff and another dozen Afghans were inside along with the Nepalese guards, Danziger said.
The Afghan staff escaped through the main gate and took three international workers with them. Nine other staff, including Krdzalic, fled to a fortified "strong room" along with one foreigner working for the International Labor Organization.
"You can imagine it was a very confusing situation inside the strong room. Not to mention we had this one (badly burned) colleague of ours who they were desperately trying to keep out of going into shock," Danziger said.
He said it took Afghan police two hours to get to the strong room and get the staff out. "And then, of course, when there were knocks on the door, (those inside) had to be reassured that these were friendly knocks and not the terrorists."
Krdzalic, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was still visibly shaken.
"I hope you all understand that it is still too early for me to go back over that time," she said.
She also thanked the Afghan police, saying without them, she might not be alive.
Kabul's police chief, Gen. Mohammad Ayoub Salangi, says he considers the operation a success.
"The enemy's goal was to take the lives of the IOM workers," Salangi said. "Fortunately they couldn't do it. Our forces went out there and stopped them."
Training Afghan military and police to take over security is essential to the withdrawal of more than 60,000 foreign forces remaining in Afghanistan nearly 12 years after toppling the Taliban's hard-line regime for sheltering al-Qaida's terrorist leadership. The start of the insurgents' spring fighting season last month is a crucial test for those forces, as U.S. military trainers pull back.
The coalition said its troops were not involved in the fighting Friday, though they provided medical support.