Eight killed in 10-hour-long Taliban gunbattle in Kabul (UPDATE)

Eight killed in 10-hour-long Taliban gunbattle in Kabul (UPDATE)

Details added (the first version was published at 00:59; the second version was published at 03:18)

A Taliban assault on a United Nations building in Kabul ended after a fierce 10-hour gunbattle in which at least eight people were killed, officials said early Saturday, dpa reported.

Two Afghan civilians, an Afghan police officer and five Taliban insurgents were among the dead. Four Nepalese guards, four foreigners, two police and two civilians were wounded.

The incident was the second major attack in Kabul in a little more than a week. Officials said civilian casualties were relatively low because it was a Friday, which is the weekend in Afghanistan.

The attack began late Friday afternoon, when insurgents wearing suicide vests and armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades tried to storm a building of the UN-affiliated International Office of Migration (IOM) in Kabul, officials and witnesses said.

When Nepalese security guards at the IOM building fought back, the attackers took shelter in a civilian house next door, igniting a massive firefight that raged into the night, one guard commander told dpa.

The neighbourhood hosts several UN offices, diplomatic missions, and Afghan security installations, as well as private guest houses and two hospitals, one of which is run by the Afghan intelligence agency.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack within an hour.

"A number of mujahideen (freedom fighters) attacked a refuge used by CIA officials in Kabul as well as a department of the Interior Ministry," Mujahid claimed in a statement.

Afghan forces killed the last insurgent holed up in a civilian house after 10 hours, Kabul police chief Ayoub Salangi told dpa.

"In these hours of fighting, two civilians owning a house where the attackers had taken shelter were killed. Both of them were men," Salangi said.

Hashmat Stanikzai, another police official, said one Afghan police officer had died earlier in the gunbattle.

He said all of the attackers came wearing burqa, a long-flowing all-body-covering attire for Muslim women in Afghanistan.

"Three IOM staff members were injured, one seriously. A staff member from the International Labour Organization was also injured. All are now receiving medical attention," said Jan Kubis, head of UN political mission in Afghanistan.

"All United Nations staff members in the capital have been accounted for."

Emergency, an Italian non-governmental medical organization operating in Afghanistan, said it was treating three United Nations employees, two Nepalese guards and an Italian official at its hospital in Kabul.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said that two Afghan civilians and two police officers were wounded in the attack.

The UN, the US embassy in Kabul and the NATO-led coalition condemned the attack. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had not commented overnight.

According to witness accounts, the first explosion from the suicide car bomb could be heard kilometers away. It was followed by sporadic gunfire and rocked-propelled grenade blasts. Over the next hours, more explosions were heard from the compound where the insurgents had taken refuge.

The blast shattered glass in nearby buildings, including Kabul's business district.

UN facilities have been attacked in the past, though IOM is not known to have been previously targeted by the Afghan insurgents. Several officials were killed in a 2009 attack on a UN guest house.

The Taliban have launched their spring offensive with a flurry of bombings and attacks around the country. They tried to storm a district this week in southern Afghanistan, in a several-hour gunbattle in which at least 30 insurgents and five Afghan security forces were slain.

In the capital, Friday's attack was the first in Kabul by a suicide squad since February, when the Taliban took over a traffic office building.

However, a single suicide car bomb on May 16 in Kabul killed at least two soldiers and four contractors with NATO-led forces, along with nine Afghan civilians. That attack was claimed by an insurgent group other than the Taliban.

The rate of security incidents and civilian casualties has risen in the first three months of the year.

According to a UN estimate, the increase in civilian casualties is almost 30 per cent in January-March compared to the same period a year ago, while a report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office says attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups increased 47 per cent in the first quarter, year-on-year.

The NATO-led international coalition continues to withdraw its combat troops while Afghan forces take control of security for most of tje country. The US is set to cut its 67,000 troops by half by February 2014.

On Friday, the NATO forces did not participate in the operation against the Taliban attack, officials confirmed.

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