Kabul blast signals return of forgotten Taliban insurgency

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The Independent Online

A United Nations employee has been killed in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, after the worst week of fighting further south in Afghanistan for nine months.

A United Nations employee has been killed in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, after the worst week of fighting further south in Afghanistan for nine months.

About 70 Taliban fighters and 10 government security personnel have also been killed and seven US soldiers wounded in two battles, confounding hopes that the Taliban insurgency may be petering out.

In Kabul, a bomber apparently ran into an internet café, popular with foreigners, and detonated a grenade which killed himself and two others, and wounded six. One of the dead was a Burmese engineer who had worked for the UN for about a year, the first UN employee to be killed in Afghanistan since 2001. He was checking e-mails when the attack happened at the Park internet café in the city centre on Saturday.

A similar suicide attack in the city killed an American woman and injured Icelandic peacekeepers last October but such attacks have been rare.

A French photographer who has worked for The Independent, Veronique Deviguerie, was in the café but escaped injury. She said: "There was a huge blast and the ceiling fell in. The man at the computer next to me was killed and my computer was hit by shrapnel."

Westerners in Kabul were also jittery after two attempted kidnappings of foreigners, reportedly by members of the same gang that abducted three UN employees last year.

In the past few days there have been two major battles in the south, after months of relative calm.

In the first, a US unit and Afghan police were ambushed by fighters. Six American soldiers were injured including two who had their legs blown off. Helicopter gunships and A-10 attack aircraft strafed the guerrillas. Then, after nightfall, a Spectre aircraft raked them with fire from chain guns. Two days later, the military announced 44 "enemy" had been killed including Chechen and Pakistani al-Qa'ida fighters.

Also in the south, in Kandahar province, an Afghan National Army patrol and their American trainer were ambushed by the Taliban. Ten were killed and an American soldier was wounded. In subsequent air attacks around 20 guerrillas were killed.

The battles came after weeks of small-scale skirmishes, night ambushes and roadside bomb attacks by guerrillas determined to demonstrate there is still fight left in their movement.

US commanders had been dismissive of the Taliban's military ability and organisational skills after it failed to wreck last October's presidential election, as Taliban chiefs had promised.

Since the New Year some low-level Taliban commanders have also surrendered to the Kabul government under an amnesty scheme, raising hopes the insurgency was close to collapse.

But, only a few have given up and Lieutenant General David Barno, the outgoing US military commander in Afghanistan, warned last month of possible "terrorist spectaculars" in the run-up to September's parliamentary elections, and the likelihood that a Taliban hardcore would fight under the direction of al-Qa'ida.

The US still has nearly 17,000 combat troops in the country, mostly in the south and east, and 5,000 British soldiers are expected to start taking over many of their operations at the end of this year.

For over three years the Taliban have fought a guerrilla war from bases on the Pakistan side of the border. Hundreds of fighters have died, mainly boys recruited in schools who are often slaughtered by heavily armed US forces. The war, long overshadowed by Iraq, has resulted in the deaths of around 140 US troops, and it costs the US around $10bn (£5.3bn) a year.