Taliban truck bomb blasts hotel for foreigners in Kabul

Kabul (AFP) - A Taliban truck bomb blasted a hotel for foreigners in Kabul Monday, triggering a seven-hour gun and grenade assault that highlighted growing insecurity in a city still reeling from its deadliest attack for 15 years.

The guests and staff of the Northgate hotel escaped unharmed, but one policeman was killed after the suicide truck bomber paved the way for two other armed insurgents to enter the heavily guarded facility near Kabul airport.

The massive explosion reverberated through the Afghan capital, leaving a huge muddy crater and piles of scorched debris strewn at the compound, which was previously attacked in July 2013.

"A truck bomb packed with explosives struck the outer (perimeter) wall of the hotel," said Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi.

"One policeman lost his life and three others were wounded but none of the hotel staff or guests were hurt. Three Taliban fighters including the truck bomber were killed."

The attack came days after the Islamic State group claimed twin bombings that left 80 people dead in Kabul, the deadliest attack in the city since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Afghan commandos set up a tight security cordon around Northgate, which is used by military contractors and other foreigners, as sporadic grenade explosions and gunfire shook the area after the truck bomb struck around 1:30am (2100 GMT Sunday).

Local TV station Tolo cited a source inside the facility as saying that all the staff and guests -- including at least 11 foreigners -- hunkered down in safe rooms throughout the night.

It added that NATO special forces had overseen the clearance operation at the Northgate, a luxury enclave which had been fortified with blast walls, watchtowers and sniffer dogs.

Tremors from the bombing rattled windows across the city. It also cut a power line that supplies electricity to half of Kabul, according to the city's main utility.

- Growing insecurity -

"The blast was so strong that it startled everybody out of their beds," Abdul Mohib, a resident of the neighbourhood, told AFP. "The children were shocked. We all left the house screaming and shouting as our windows were shattered."

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns blasted their way into the compound housing "American invaders" after the truck bomb went off.

He said the attack was meant to avenge the killing of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike inside Pakistan in May.

The militants are intensifying their annual summer offensive after a brief lull during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ended in early July.

The previous attack on the hotel compound in 2013 also involved a Taliban truck bomb followed by a gun siege. Nine people were killed, including four Nepalese.

The IS twin bombings on July 23 tore through crowds of minority Shiite Hazara protesters as they gathered to demand that a major power line be routed through the central province of Bamiyan, one of the most deprived areas of Afghanistan.

But officials have denied that it marked a turning point for IS in Afghanistan, saying the group has been under heavy pressure in its eastern strongholds from both US air strikes and a ground offensive led by Afghan forces.

The latest attacks in Kabul are a grim reminder of growing insecurity in Afghanistan since most foreign troops withdrew in 2014. The rising violence has resulted in large civilian casualties.

The UN last week said civilian casualties rose to a record high in the first half of 2016, with 1,601 civilians killed and 3,565 wounded -- a four percent increase compared to the same period last year.