Afghanistan: Rockets hit near Kabul presidential palace

Rocket barrage hits capital’s diplomatic area as President Ashraf Ghani gives peace speech during Muslim festival.

Rockets were fired towards the presidential palace in Kabul as the Afghan president delivered a message of peace for Muslim celebrations of Eid al-Adha, with helicopter gunships destroying buildings from where the projectiles were launched.

An official at the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan said nine attackers launched about 30 mortar rounds from two separate locations in Kabul.

It was unclear who carried out the attack. Police initially blamed the Taliban, but Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) later issued a statement saying it fired mortars at the presidential palace. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.

The mortar barrage came two days after President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban a three-month ceasefire.

The boom of the rockets was heard in the live broadcast of Ghani’s speech. He interrupted his message to say: “If they are thinking the rocket attack will keep Afghans down, they are wrong.”

The area where the rockets struck is one of the most secure in the Afghan capital, where embassies and government buildings are surrounded by high cement blast walls and coils of razor wire. 

Afghan police cordoned off two locations and military helicopters destroyed two firing positions.

“In total four of the nine insurgents were killed. The other five insurgents surrendered to Afghan forces,” US Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Martin O’Donnell said in a statement.

Analyst Nazar Sarmachar said the proximity of the attack to the presidential palace highlighted glaring security shortcomings in the capital. “It could have killed or wounded the president,” he said.

ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]
ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

Police were combing the area in the heart of Kabul, where crowded open-air markets intrude on old residential areas of mostly poor, mud-brick homes.

It was another blow to Ghani’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and hold peace talks to end the country’s 17-year war.

On Sunday, Ghani offered a conditional ceasefire to last during the holiday, saying it would only take effect if the Taliban reciprocated.

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister said on Tuesday the Taliban accepted an invitation to attend peace talks in Moscow next month. Sergey Lavrov said Russia invited the Taliban to the September 4 talks and received a positive response, voicing hope for “productive” negotiations.

Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s contacts with the Taliban aim to ensure the safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and encourage the Taliban to abandon hostilities and engage in a dialogue with the government.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in recent months, seizing rural districts and carrying out major assaults against security forces and government compounds on an almost daily basis. 

Wave of attacks

Two Taliban commanders said their leader had rejected Ghani’s offer of a three-month ceasefire, beginning with this week’s Eid, Reuters reported.

In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefireover the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and Taliban fighters embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.

But one of the Taliban commanders said the June ceasefire had helped US forces, who the Taliban are trying to drive out of the country. 

Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada rejected the new offer on the grounds it too would only help the American-led mission.

The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in recent weeks, including storming the city of Ghazni, where more than 200 people were killed in the fighting.

Blasts, suicide attacks and clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces killed more than 1,600 civilians in the first six months of the year, the highest number in the past decade, the United Nations says.

Afghan security forces have struggled to battle the Taliban and ISIL since the US and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in the country in 2014 and shifted their focus to a “support and counter-terrorism” role.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies