Deadly bomb attacks in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar were a warning to NATO's top general that the Taliban are ready for a coming offensive in their heartland, the insurgents said Sunday.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the bombings show the insurgents are still able to operate despite the buildup of Afghan and international troops in the south in preparation for a push into Kandahar province.
A separate, Taliban-linked Web site called the attacks a "warning" to Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The top NATO general has said Kandahar province is the next target for coalition forces who recently drove the insurgents from a key stronghold in neighboring Helmand province.
"Gen. McChrystal has said that soon they will start their operations, and now we have already started our operations," Ahmadi said by telephone. "With all the preparations they have taken, still they are not able to stop us."
The multiple explosions — there were at least five blasts, four of them suicide attacks — killed at least 35 people, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Kandahar provincial Gov. Tooryalai Wesa told reporters that he had asked the central government in Kabul for more Afghan troops to protect the city in the run-up to the expected offensive in the province, which the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. He also said he wants to coordinate with NATO forces to improve security.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Zemeri Bashary told reporters Sunday that the government was considering Wesa's request for additional forces.
Residents say Taliban militants can operate with little restraint in Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan that shares a name with the province.
‘It’s terrible for us’
"They can do what they intend and want, and the government can't control the situation," said Javed Ahmad, 40, of Kandahar. "We don't feel secure in the presence of all the forces in Afghanistan, and it's terrible for us to live in this kind of situation. We don't feel safe even at home, and we can't walk around."
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks, which hit the city's prison, police headquarters, a wedding hall next door and other areas on roads leading to the prison.
The main target was the prison, where investigators have found eight suicide vests, three rockets and AK-47 ammunition, police said.
Bashary told reporters the attackers were trying to free prisoners and block security forces from responding, "but they failed in their mission."
The assault mirrored a 2008 suicide bombing at the Kandahar prison gates that freed hundreds of prisoners, many of them suspected insurgents. No inmates escaped this time from the lockup, which Canadian troops reinforced with cement block after the 2008 attack.
Among the dead were 13 policemen and 22 civilians, including six women and three children, the interior ministry said. Most of the casualties occurred at the police headquarters and at the wedding celebration in a hall next door.
Another 57 people were wounded, including 17 policemen, and 42 homes were damaged, the ministry said.
"Last night was like doomsday for all of Kandahar's people," said Mohammad Anwar, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, whose relative lost a son in the attacks. He said residents blamed the United States and international forces for not battling the militants strongly enough.
"It is difficult for us to bear this kind of situation anymore," Anwar said. "We don't know the aim of these people," he said, referring to the insurgents. "Are they trying to kill civilians or eliminate the system? The government is too weak to control these kind of attacks."
Kandahar city, population 800,000, was the seat of government for the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan, imposing its vision of Islamic theocracy for five years before being toppled by U.S.-backed forces in 2001.
The offensive that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are planning in Kandahar later this year is a follow-up to the ongoing military operation in Helmand province's Marjah district. The operation is the first test of top Afghanistan commander U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy to rout insurgents from areas, set up new governance and rush in development aid in hopes of winning the loyalty of the residents.
First to respond
Afghan National Police forces were the first to respond to Saturday's explosions and some Canadian troops later deployed to support them, Canadian military spokeswoman Capt. Cynthia LaRue said.
"The most important part here is to remember that ANP did a very good job and responded quickly," LaRue said Sunday of the police, which are traditionally one of Afghanistan's least-trusted institutions.
U.S. and Canadian troops have been working in Kandahar to build up a 2,000-strong local police force, traditionally one of the country's least-trusted institutions.
Training a workable Kandahar police force has become a priority for international forces trying to build trust in the Afghan government, which they hope will eventually be able to take over security. The 2,800 Canadian troops who oversee operations in Kandahar city and the surrounding province are due to leave Afghanistan next year.
Another roadside bomb Sunday morning targeted a car carrying Pakistani construction workers south of Kandahar in the district of Dand, according to the governor. Four of the Pakistani workers and their Afghan driver were wounded.