International peacekeepers patrolling the Afghan capital exchanged heavy gunfire with a large group of armed men Friday night. The incident was the latest in a string of attacks on peacekeepers in recent weeks.
The multinational International Security Assistance Force - better known as ISAF - says two British peacekeeping teams came under fire simultaneously while on patrol in the southwestern section of the capital. Up to 40 men, armed with AK-47s, fired at least 10 rounds at the peacekeepers before the soldiers returned fire and sent for reinforcements. No one injured during the incident.
ISAF apprehended seven people. The rest escaped in vehicles. The detained men - five of whom were wearing the new Afghan police uniforms - were subsequently turned over to authorities at the Interior Ministry.
ISAF spokesman Neal Peckham says the armed group was the largest force it has encountered since peacekeepers began patrolling the city in early January. He noted that the men Friday night appeared nervous in the presence of ISAF soldiers.
"That is what is indicative of something underhanded going on for the moment as far as we are concerned," he said. "But these seven individuals are going to be questioned by the interim administration and will hopefully clarify whether this was something we, unfortunately, were not told about in the way of an IA [interim administration] operation or indeed they are lawless elements who were carrying out a criminal act at the time."
Earlier this month, authorities in Kabul arrested scores of people in the capital in connection with an alleged plot to kill interim leader, Hamid Karzai, without informing ISAF about the operation. But if the armed men are not connected to a government operation, Colonel Peckham says there is a good possibility the men could have been part of a gang of robbers active in southwestern Kabul in recent weeks.
Peacekeepers have come under fire several times while patrolling the area. Friday's incident also follows an attempted rocket attack on an ISAF compound Sunday morning - believed to have been carried out by militants trying to disrupt the Loya Jirga tribal council meeting, which will convene in June to select a new government.
The United Nations dispatched the 4,800, British-led peacekeeping force to Kabul to enhance security in the capital in the run-up to the Loya Jirga.