— Afghan forces on Tuesday repelled an early morning Taliban attack on an entrance to the Presidential Palace compound, killing all of the militants involved. The attack took place as a U.S. envoy was in the Afghan capital to push along peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Witnesses say explosions and gunfire erupted around the palace in central Kabul as militants tried to enter the fortified complex housing the presidential palace, the Afghan Defense Ministry, the U.S. Embassy and a former hotel apparently used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
News reporters had been called to the palace for a press briefing on the status of peace talks with the Taliban.
Kabul police chief General Mohammed Ayoub Salangi said the attackers, dressed in uniform and carrying false identification papers, had made it past some initial checkpoints. They then tried to drive into one of the gates to the highly-secured compound.
“A Land Cruiser car using fake ID came to the gate," he said. "While the guards were asking them to show the ID, two to three people came out from the car, and the car exploded. The guards killed all the attackers. The situation is now under control.”
Officials later said two vehicles full of explosives were involved in the attack but that neither got close to the presidential palace. At least two Afghan security guards died.
It was not clear where President Hamid Karzai was at the time of the blast, but officials said he was safe.
The Taliban sent messages to local reporters claiming responsibility for the attack. The militants claimed to have “brought death to the enemy” and said that eight of their fighters had died in the attack.
U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham condemned the attack in a statement. He said the outcome demonstrated the futility of the Taliban's efforts to use violence to achieve their goals, and called on the militant group to talk to the Afghan government on peace and reconciliation.
The Taliban have carried out a number of attacks across the country this year despite efforts to start peace talks with the militant group.
Hamid Farooqi, a professor and former Karzai cabinet minister, said both the government forces and the militants were ramping up their fight in an effort to gain the upper hand before they sit down at the table to talk peace.
“I think both sides are trying to get some more ground on the field, try to get a higher advantage on their peace negotiation. That is what I believe is happening on both sides.”
According to the United Nations, civilian casualties in the country are up 24 percent over the same period last year, an estimated 75 percent of which are due to violent conflict.
Tuesday’s explosion came as U.S. envoy James Dobbins was leaving Kabul after talks with Karzai on how to push forward reconciliation talks between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban. Dobbins arrived in neighboring Pakistan later Tuesday, where he was expected to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Expected talks on ending 12 years of war with the militant group in Doha, Qatar, fell apart when the Taliban hoisted the flag under which they ruled Afghanistan for five years, causing Kabul to boycott.