KABUL - Taliban militants unleashed a wave of rockets at Kabul's international airport and government buildings Tuesday in an attempt to shatter the sense of security in the Afghan capital less than three weeks before presidential elections.
The rockets missed their targets, lightly wounding a girl and a man with flying glass, but a Taliban spokesman said the group would soon launch more attacks in Kabul, which has been largely spared the violence roiling the south and east of the country.
Incumbent President Hamid Karzai made a rare campaign appearance in the heavily Pashtun east to appeal for votes from the ethnic group that provides most of the support for the insurgents. He told a crowd of several thousands in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, that Western forces must release suspected Taliban supporters and fighters held without charge for months and even years.
The U.S. military holds some 600 prisoners at a detention centre at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul as "unlawful enemy combatants" denied the right to legal representation. Their status is a growing source of tension between the U.S. and Karzai, who has been increasingly criticizing American forces for the detentions, along with raids on homes and airstrikes that kill civilians.
Karzai issued one of his strongest demands yet for the mostly Pashtun detainees' freedom.
"The Afghan people are happy because you have paved roads, built schools, and the salaries of the government are paid by the international community and United States," he told the crowd in a field before a mosque. "But we want all our prisoners to be released. We need dignity in our houses and dignity for our women."
Karzai, who has made few campaign appearances, was once highly popular inside and outside Afghanistan but has lost lustre in recent years because of endemic government corruption, a huge narcotics industry and the unyielding violence.
He called for the Taliban to negotiate with the government and participate in the election but said the two sides remained too far apart for talks to be successful.
The president condemned a suicide attack Tuesday in Zabul province, where a bomber detonated his explosive vest besides a vehicle carrying Afghan security agents, killing one agent and four civilians. Eighteen people were wounded, police said.
Karzai did not mention the attack launched on Kabul at dawn from a largely unpopulated section of Deh Sabz, an area about five miles (eight kilometres) northeast of the city.
A handful of large-scale attacks have hit high-profile targets in Kabul but the city has been mostly spared the regular bombings and gunbattles common across much of Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said at least eight rockets slammed into the capital, one damaging a senior Interior Ministry official's house near the U.S. Embassy in a heavily guarded section filled with diplomats and international organizations. Another hit in a mostly Afghan residential neighbourhood nearby, but police said most landed in residential neighbourhoods around the airport, which sits between the launch site and the centre of Kabul.
The early hour of the attack meant the normally busy streets where the rockets landed were almost empty.
A Taliban spokesman claimed militants fired nine rockets at the airport and two at an Afghan military headquarters near the U.S. Embassy to show that the government cannot ensure security in the capital.
"We are in control," Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press by telephone, warning the Taliban would fire more rockets at the capital before the elections.
The Deh Sabz district police chief, Mohammad Haydar Tayeb, said police found a ninth, unexploded rocket there and suspect the militants fled after activating a crude device that uses slowly dripping water as a timer for the portable rocket launchers.
Tayeb said several suspects were arrested and handed over to intelligence services.
In Brussels, NATO's governing body approved a plan to set up a new headquarters in Kabul to handle daily operations.
The move is aimed at easing the pressure on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and is similar to the model in Iraq, where a four-star American general had overall command of multinational forces and a three-star general ran daily operations.
McChrystal is also expected this month to recommend a significant expansion of the Afghan armed forces and a reorganization of U.S. and NATO operations. There are 102,000 foreign troops in the country, including 63,000 Americans.
Some 30,000 of those American troops serve in the NATO-led force, which numbers 64,500. The rest are part of a U.S.-led coalition training and mentoring Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations throughout the country.
Another 5,000 U.S. troops are slated to arrive this year under an increase President Barack Obama has already approved.
July was the deadliest month for international forces since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and 10 NATO troops have been killed so far this month.
NATO reported that one of its troops had been killed Tuesday when insurgents attacked with a roadside bomb and small-arms fire in southern Afghanistan. It did not identify the nationality or exact location of the attack.
U.S. and Afghan forces killed 17 insurgents during a two-hour gun battle in the southern province of Helmand early Tuesday, said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for Helmand's governor. The fight occurred in Marjah, where U.S. Marines have said that Taliban fighters fled after some 4,000 Marines launched a major operation there last month.
Associated Press Writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.