KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Ten terrified international aid workers huddled inside a fortified room in Kabul for two hours as a Taliban attack raged around them until they were rescued by Afghan police, the aid group's country chief said Sunday.
Richard Danziger, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration, praised the police for fighting their way into the compound to free the workers during the eight-hour Taliban assault Friday that turned one of the capital's most upscale neighborhoods into a battleground.
"Both the police and our ... guards, they held their ground and fought for two hours until they found a time when they could grab our staff and take them out of the compound," he said at a news conference along with his deputy, Enira Krdzalic, who survived the siege.
An Afghan police officer and two civilians died in the heavy fighting that began with a suicide bombing, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
Afghan security forces have been criticized over how such heavily armed attackers could penetrate the area, which is dotted with checkpoints and blast walls protecting several government buildings and humanitarian offices including the headquarters of the United Nations in Sharr-e-Now district.
Others noted the fact that only two civilians died as a sign of the Afghan forces' growing capability — one of the lynchpins of the international military coalition's plans to withdraw by the end of next year.
Details of the chaotic siege were still emerging two days later. Danziger said earlier police reports that one of the group's armed Nepalese guards died was not true, though five of the guards were wounded along with four IOM staff, including one Italian woman badly burned by a grenade. All of the attackers were killed.
Danziger said the attack was clearly planned to target the international staff, and the gunmen appeared to know the layout of at least part of the compound.
"The way they forced themselves in, the way they knew where to go once they were inside, certainly provides every indication that they were coming for us," he said.
Danziger, who was out of Afghanistan during Friday's siege, said he was "mystified" as to why IOM was targeted. Insurgent assaults on aid groups are relatively rare, though attacks have hit guest houses used by the U.N. in the past. The IOM is a U.N.-affiliated agency assisting returning Afghan migrants as well as those displaced internally.
A Taliban spokesman on Friday said the insurgents launched an attack on a group of CIA trainers for the Afghan security forces, but Danziger stressed that the group has no affiliation with the American spy agency, adding that the Taliban often see any foreigner as an attractive target.
When the Taliban car bomb slammed into the IOM's southeastern gate just after 4 p.m. on Friday, only about 12 international staff who live in the compound and another dozen Afghan employees were inside along with the Nepalese guards, Danziger said.
Most of the Afghan staff escaped through the main gate and took three international workers with them. Nine other staff, including Krdzalic, fled to a fortified "strong room" along with one foreigner working for the International Labor Organization who also lived in the guest house.
"They were basically in direct line of attack," said Danziger. He said the Taliban attackers were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers that they fired from the building and, later, from upper floors of nearby offices they took over.
"You can imagine it was a very confusing situation inside the strong room. Not to mention we had this one (wounded) colleague of ours who they were desperately trying to keep out of going into shock," he said.
He said it took Afghan police two hours of fighting to get to the strong room and get the staff out. "And then, of course, when there were knocks on the door, (those inside) had to be reassured that these were friendly knocks and not the terrorists."
Krdzalic, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was still visibly shaken from her ordeal.
"I hope you all understand that it is still too early for me to go back over that time," she said.
She thanked the Afghan police, saying without them, she might not be alive.
Training Afghan military and police to take over security is essential to the withdrawal of more than 60,000 foreign forces remaining in Afghanistan nearly 12 years after toppling the Taliban's hard-line regime for sheltering al-Qaida's terrorist leadership. The start of the insurgents' spring fighting season last month has proved a crucial test for those forces, as U.S. military trainers pull back and let the local police and military take the lead.
The coalition said Friday that its troops were not involved in the fighting Friday, though they provided medical support.