Taliban suicide bombers stormed a British compound in an upscale Kabul neighborhood shortly after dawn Friday, killing at least eight people during an eight-hour firefight as two English language teachers and their bodyguard hid in a locked panic room.
The assault came on the 92nd anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain, and the Taliban described it as a warning to outsiders in the nearly decade-long war. The insurgents also hope to show that they remain a potent force despite taking heavy casualties from last year's buildup of U.S. and NATO troops.
Still, the attack ended up killing mostly Afghans — five policemen and a municipal worker. The two other victims were a security guard of unknown nationality and a New Zealand special forces soldier who was shot in the chest as he tried to free hostages, according to New Zealand defense chief Lt. Gen. Rhys Jones.
The soldier was the first member of the New Zealand Special Air Service, which mentors Afghan security forces, to be killed in this country.
Sixteen others were wounded in the attack on the British Council, an international charity that gives leadership training and does other work toward a post-conflict Afghanistan.
The two language teachers — a Briton and a South African — were still sleeping at about 6 a.m. when a suicide bomber detonated explosives packed in a car outside the compound. The blast breached a wall, and another attacker rushed into the compound and blew himself up.
The two female teachers and their male British bodyguard dashed to a safe room, where they stayed as militants and security forces fought for more than eight hours with rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, machine guns and rifles.
All three were safely rescued from the site, which was littered with debris from the initial twin explosions that shattered windows a third of a mile (half a kilometer) away.
"Clearly, they are deeply shocked. They were inside the compound for a very long period of time," Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, said in London.
The violence comes as Afghan forces have started to assume responsibility for security, a gradual process leading to the end of the foreign combat mission in 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, attending an independence ceremony at the presidential palace during the siege, said strikes on specific targets show that the insurgents are weak and cannot stand and fight the Afghan national security forces.
The U.S.-led coalition said Afghan troops led the assault on the insurgents at the British compound with NATO troops providing assistance.
More than 200 Afghan policemen flooded the scene of the attack. NATO helicopters circled overhead. In the early hours of the fight, a reporter for The Associated Press heard an Afghan intelligence officer call for more ammunition. "Bring more grenades!" he yelled into a radio.
At midday, coalition forces used canisters of red smoke to mark a landing zone in the middle of a city road where two rescue helicopters picked up the dead and wounded. The fighting continued for three more hours. Afghan security forces said at least three insurgents fought from a secure bunker inside the compound.
At about 3 p.m., the AP reporter heard two powerful blasts. Part of the building turned to flames and black smoke rose from the site. The battle was over as the last of the estimated five militants involved in the attack were killed.
"This was a vicious and cowardly attack, but is hasn't succeeded," British Prime Minister David Cameron said. "There has been a tragic loss of life of Afghan police and others."
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a message posted on a Taliban website that the attack was a signal to the British and their allies "that invading forces are to be doomed to destruction as the British Empire had been destined to failure 92 years ago," according to a translation by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group.
The walled compound of the British Council, first established in Afghanistan in 1964, is located in an upscale residential neighborhood in the western part of Kabul. It consists of a two-story building and a separate single-story structure.
Separately, the coalition reported that a NATO service member was killed in a roadside bombing Friday in southern Afghanistan. The coalition did not release the nationality of the troop or disclose other details about the death. So far this year, 389 foreign service members have been killed in Afghanistan.
Also in the south, a man with a bomb hidden in his turban blew himself up at the gate of the compound of the governor of Helmand province, according to provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. The suicide bomber died and a policeman was wounded in the blast.
In recent weeks, assassins with bombs in their turbans killed a prominent cleric and a mayor in neighboring Kandahar province. The killings prompted Karzai to urge Afghan religious leaders to condemn the use of turban bombs.