7 killed as Taleban tactics escalate

KABUL - Taleban fighters wearing suicide vests and armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the main police station in Khost yesterday in one of the most audacious attacks in recent years.

Their assault in the eastern Afghan city triggered lengthy gunbattles that left seven militants dead and 14 people wounded.

The attack took place in an area that it was hoped had been stabilised. Khost is a major provincial centre and the site of one of the biggest United States bases in Afghanistan.

The assault signalled a further escalation in Taleban tactics of targeting poorly defended Government installations rather than heavily armed international troops.

One aim is to drive a wedge between local forces and officials and those trying to protect them. Local forces are attacked directly, international soldiers are struck with remote-controlled bombs.

It is less than a month before Afghanistan's presidential election. US envoy Richard Holbrooke called it "extraordinary" to hold a presidential election during a war. He said the vote faced "many complex challenges", including security issues and access to polls for women.

US and Nato forces have stepped up operations in hopes of ensuring enough security for a strong voter turnout for the August 20 presidential election.

In recent weeks, tribal leaders have seen a major influx of fighters who are fleeing operations on the Pakistani side of the porous frontier 20km from Khost where Islamabad's soldiers have begun moving against key insurgent havens.

The attack began when at least six insurgents wearing explosives stormed the area around the main police station and a nearby Government-run bank. All were shot and killed before they could detonate their vests, the Interior Ministry said. A seventh attacker detonated a car bomb near a police rapid reaction force, wounding two policemen.

Khost has long been a flashpoint. This year 11 Taleban suicide bombers struck Government buildings there, killing 20 people and wounding three Americans.

Though attention has focused on the south of Afghanistan, there has been violence throughout the east too. Last week suspected Taleban militants launched near-simultaneous assaults in Gardez, about 80km northwest of Khost, and in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which had been calm.

Western strategy in Afghanistan is based on clearing terrain then handing control to local forces so the foreigners can eventually leave. Afghan defence officials said they expected violence to become worse.

Meanwhile, US military authorities in Afghanistan may hire a private contractor to provide around-the-clock security at dozens of bases and protect vehicle convoys moving throughout the country.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to cut back on the use of contractors, who now provide a wide range services to American troops in war zones, including transport, communications, food service, construction, and maintenance. As recently as February, however, Gates called the use of private security contractors in certain parts of Afghanistan "vital" to supporting US bases. He said a contract for the work also created job opportunities for Afghans.

But the use of private contractors in Iraq has been highly contentious. Since the September 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad by guards employed by Blackwater (now Xe Services), critics have urged US officials to maintain much tighter controls over hired guards.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Army published a notice on July 10 informing interested contractors it was contemplating a contract for "theatre-wide" armed security.

"The contract would provide for a variety of security services, to include the static security of compounds on which US and coalition forces reside, and for the protection of mission-essential convoys in and around forward operating bases located throughout Afghanistan," the notice states.

No formal request for proposals has been issued. If the military decides to move ahead, a contract could be awarded by December 1.

- OBSERVER, AP

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