KABUL: Taleban gunmen stormed a Kabul guesthouse used by a US-based aid group and held four foreigners hostage for several hours on Friday, just eight days before Afghanistan holds a presidential election which the militant group has vowed to derail.
Kabul is already on high alert and people across the country are on edge ahead of an April 5 vote the hardline movement denounces as a Western-backed sham.
The siege of the walled compound lasted several hours before Afghan security forces killed the last remaining Taleban gunman holed up inside.
At least one Afghan child was killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the building and insurgents forced their way in. There were no casualties among foreigners.
A Reuters witness saw about 20 people being evacuated from the guesthouse in an upmarket residential area of Kabul, many looking frightened and shocked.
“The fight is over. The five attackers are dead,” Qadam Shah Shaheem, commander of 111 Military Corps Kabul, told Reuters.
“One detonated his car loaded with explosives, three others detonated explosives attached to their bodies inside the building, and one was shot by security forces. All four foreigners are alive and safe now.”
The country manager of an organisation using the guesthouse said four people had been held hostage by the Taleban as their colleagues made frantic phone calls to establish if they were alive.
“I can confirm it was attacked and that there are only four people (inside),” said Hajji Mohammad Sharif Osmani, country manager of Roots of Peace, a US-based group involved in demining and other projects in Afghanistan.
“The rest of the guys are outside.” The attack was a chilling reminder to Afghan voters and foreigners of the kind of assault the Taleban are capable of mounting in the heavily guarded Afghan capital after their leaders ordered fighters to disrupt the election.
Violence has spiralled in Afghanistan in recent weeks with almost daily explosions and gunfights around the country.
Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked an election commission office in Kabul on Tuesday, and last week, nine people including an AFP journalist and an election observer were killed in an attack on a highly fortified hotel in the capital.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Friday’s assault, saying in a statement that the target was a foreign guesthouse and a church.
The nation of 30 million is holding an election to choose a successor to outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from running for another term in office.
It will be seen as a major test by foreign donors who are hesitant about bankrolling the government after the bulk of NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan withdraw later this year.The worker was employed at one of the layers of subcontractor companies that supply labor to TEPCO. Workers’ exposure to radiation is monitored, and they must quit when they reach the annual limit.
TEPCO said the worker was the seventh to die over the last three years. It said three died from heart attacks and one from leukemia, but that none of the deaths has been related to radiation exposure.
“In the three years since the disaster, we had not had any worker deaths caused by work (inside the plant). The fact that such a serious accident has occurred is deeply regrettable,” said Tepco spokesman Masayuki Ono.
The utility will suspend cleanup operations for an immediate safety inspection, Kyodo newswire reported.
Most workers inside the plant are contract labourers hired by multiple layers of construction companies. A Reuters investigation last year found widespread labour abuses, where workers said their pay was skimmed and there was little scrutiny over working conditions inside the plant.
Tepco on Friday would not name the worker’s direct employer, but said he reported up to Toso Fudosan Kanri Company, a first-tier contractor under Tepco. The worker was in his 50s, the utility said.
The company confirmed it had hired the worker through another subcontractor.
Tepco has been widely criticised for its handling of the cleanup. The operator was plagued by a series of leaks of radioactive water from hastily built tanks at the site last year and it has repeatedly promised to improve working conditions.
Earlier on Friday, Tepco said work to remove fuel rods from one of the destroyed reactor buildings had been halted after a worker had mishandled a giant crane, the first major delay in an operation to remove 1,533 fuel rod assemblies.
The worker started moving a crane used to lift the fuel assemblies on Wednesday without disengaging the handbrake.