Attack on British Council kills 10 – but panic room saves teachers

Taliban claims responsibility for independence day suicide strike on Kabul compound

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The Independent Online

The Taliban brought terror to the streets of Kabul again yesterday with a double suicide strike at the British Council compound in the Afghan capital, which left at least 10 people dead.

Militants stormed the building, starting an eight-hour gun battle with Afghan security forces and New Zealand special forces as teachers from the charity sheltered in a panic room.

The attack, apparently timed to coincide with the 92nd anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain, was aimed at the UK. Once again, though, it was the locals who bore the brunt of the violence.

Yesterday G4S Secure Solutions, the security contractor that guards the council's staff confirmed that three of its Afghan employees were killed while six others, three Nepalese former Gurkhas and three Afghans, were injured. A New Zealand SAS soldier was also killed trying to rescue the hostages. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior said a total of 10 people had died, including policemen and a street cleaner, while 22 people were wounded.

Last night David Cameron condemned the bombing of an educational charity promoting cultural relations as "vicious and cowardly" and insisted it would not halt the UK's "vital work" in Afghanistan. He thanked the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, for the role his country's special forces played in defending the compound.

The female teachers, one British and one South African, were asleep inside the compound in the Karte Parwan area west of the Afghan capital when a car bomb blasted through the walls early yesterday morning. Minutes earlier, in what intelligence sources described as a coordinated attack, another suicide bomber had hit a key intersection in Kabul.

At the British Council, a second suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest inside the compound. Early reports suggested that at least five militants, some disguised in burqas, carried out the assault and wrestled weapons from guards.

The teachers and their male guard fled to a panic room as the militants, armed with rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, battled from a secure bunker. Afghan police and New Zealand special forces – part of a unit embedded with local counter-terrorism police – cleared the two buildings, parts of which were in flames, room by room. They were helped by a British army quick-reaction force and by US and French troops.

Last night Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir William Patey, confirmed that all the militants had been killed and that the "deeply shocked" Britons caught up in the attack were recovering at the embassy.

"This was a dastardly, cowardly attack designed to attack British interests, but ultimately ending in the deaths of many Afghans, and we regret the death of the Afghans in this."

Martin Davidson, head of the British Council, said the attack would not deter his staff from continuing their work in Afghanistan: "Young Afghans want to be part of the wider world and they demand the skills, including English language, to be able to do this. This attack must not, and will not, prevent the British Council from giving those young Afghans the support they need to be part of that wider world."

A Taliban spokesman said the attack was intended to send a message to the Afghan and British governments. "We are reminding them that we will become independent again from all foreigners, especially from the British," he told Reuters.

Kabul, once seen as quiet compared with southern provinces such as Helmand, has been subjected to repeated bombings, and aid workers have been kidnapped or murdered across the country. On 21 June about 20 people, including nine insurgents, were killed when the Taliban attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

Security had already been stepped up in the capital amid fears of an attack on Independence Day and last night questions were raised after it was reported that the national intelligence agency had warned the interior ministry at midnight that a suicide attack on Kabul was imminent.

Mr Davidson said there had been no specific threat against the British Council and the attack came as a "complete surprise and shock".

David Taylor-Smith, head of G4S in the UK and Africa, said: "We will be working with the British Council to review their security requirements. For now our efforts will focus on those killed and injured and supporting their families and friends."

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, condemned the attack, saying such strikes proved the insurgents were weak. However, it comes at a difficult time as Afghan forces begin the transition process for taking over security. They have become the victims of repeated attacks by insurgents determined to undermine their position.

The Council's role

* Fowzea Olomi, a fearless campaigner for women's rights in war-torn Afghanistan's Helmand province, insisted her greatest desire was to build schools.

"If we don't improve education the next generation will face the same situation, we won't have a real peace," she told me a fortnight ago.

Ask any Afghan, from the impoverished village farmers to the new governors, and they will list education as a top priority and the true key to a secure future.

And that is precisely what the British Council has tried to promote in Afghanistan. Since returning to the country in 2002, its main focus has been teaching English, for which there has been an "overwhelming demand", as well as offering arts and educational programmes.

The charity, which promotes cultural relations in more than 100 countries, is part-funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, it suffered swingeing cuts in the Budget last year with a 25 per cent reduction in its funding, £30m, over the next four years, reducing it to £149m.