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Afghan police kill 5 militants

Afghan police killed all five militants who attacked the election commission headquarters in Kabul on Saturday with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns, ending a four-hour standoff, according to a top government official.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault. It is the latest in a series of high-profile attacks by the Islamic militant movement as it steps up a campaign of violence to disrupt presidential elections due to be held in a week.

Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed Ayub Solangi said the attackers wore the all-encompassing burqa to sneak unnoticed into a building that looked on to the heavily fortified Independent Election Commission headquarters on the eastern edge of the capital.

They were never able to breach the heavily defended compound housing the commission itself, though two warehouses were hit and caught on fire. Two policemen were wounded in the firefight.

None of the dozens of employees and other people who had been hiding inside the election commission headquarters was injured, Solangi said.

The compound is located near the Kabul International Airport. It was shut for more than two hours and flights were diverted out of concern for the safety passengers on planes that must fly low over the site of the standoff to land.

Noor Mohammed Noor, a spokesman for the election commission, said security already had been increased around the compound because an attack had been widely expected. He said the IEC leadership was away when the assault began, and that all IEC staff members were safe.

Unable to penetrate the heavily defended commission headquarters, the attackers instead occupied a neighbouring house about 800 metres (yards) away that is inside a walled-off compound guarded by a series of watch towers and checkpoints.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack but described what would have been a much more ambitious assault. He said a suicide bomber and gunmen had stormed the IEC compound while the IEC and election observers, including foreigners, were holding a meeting.

The Taliban frequently exaggerate in their statements and a meeting could not immediately be confirmed.

Noor denied there was a meeting of observers. A news conference had been planned to discuss election security, but that was cancelled, he said.

The deputy of the IEC's media monitoring commission, Ashmat Radfar, who hid in the basement with about 40 other people during the attack, said about 15 rocket-propelled grenades had fallen in the area and two warehouses were hit and set on fire. He said the warehouses did not contain ballots or other important election materials.

Airport authorities said they closed the runway after the attack started. Airport director Yaqoub Rassouli said Emirates and Air India flights had been diverted. The airport was later reopened.

On Tuesday, the Taliban struck another IEC office on the edge of Kabul. In that assault, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle outside while two gunmen stormed the building, killing four people and trapping dozens of employees inside.

The Taliban also have stepped up attacks on foreigners in the Afghan capital, suggesting that they are shifting tactics to focus on civilian targets that aren't as heavily protected as military and government installations.

The Taliban targeted an American charity, the Roots of Peace, and a nearby day-care centre late Friday in the Afghan capital, sending foreigners — including women and children — fleeing while Afghan security forces battled the gunmen. Officials said two Afghan bystanders were killed — a girl and a driver.

Gunmen slipped through security last week into a luxury hotel in Kabul on March 20 with pistols and ammunition hidden in their shoes, then opened fire, killing nine people, including two Afghan children who were dining in the restaurant.

A Swedish journalist was shot to death on the street in a relatively affluent area earlier this month, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.

The Canadian Press

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