Afghan president forces out powerful 'King of the North'

KABUL: Afghan National Army (ANA) arrive at the side of an ongoing attack in Kabul. Militants stormed an intelligence agency training facility in Kabul yesterday, triggering intense fighting with police in the latest attack to hit the Afghan capital. —AFP

KABUL: Militants stormed an intelligence agency training centre in Kabul yesterday in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group, triggering an intense gunbattle with Afghan police. Security forces battled the militants, besieged in a construction site at the National Directorate of Security (NDS), for hours before killing at least two attackers. "They were well hidden in buildings under construction. We exploded their VBIED and killed two or three of them," a source with the NDS said on condition of anonymity, referring to a car bomb that attackers brought to the scene. Kabul police spokesman Basir Mujahid said two police officers were injured but there were no civilian casualties.

During the attack, roads to the area were closed and dozens of police and intelligence officers blocked access to the public. AFP reporters, who were held more than a kilometer away from the scene, saw ambulances and reinforcements headed towards the site. "I was going toward my school. It (the attack) happened suddenly... the police arrived in the area fast and blocked the roads, not allowing anyone to get to their homes," Naweed, a student said. IS claimed responsibility for the attack through its propaganda arm. "Two IS attackers raid the Afghan intelligence centre in Kabul," the jihadists' Amaq outlet reported.

The Afghan capital in recent months has become one of the deadliest places in the war-torn country for civilians, as the resurgent Taleban and increasingly IS both step up their attacks on security installations and mosques. Security in Kabul has been strengthened since May 31 when a massive truck bomb ripped through the city's diplomatic quarter, killing about 150 people and wounding around 400 -- mostly civilians. No group has officially claimed responsibility for that attack, which the government blamed on the Taleban-allied Haqqani Network.

Yesterday's attack represents another blow to beleaguered Afghan police and troops. The Taleban have targeted military installations in recent months, including a spate of attacks in October that killed around 150 people. Afghan forces, already beset by desertions and corruption, have seen casualties soar to what a US watchdog has described as "shockingly high" levels since NATO forces officially ended their combat mission in 2014 and began a training and support role.

Morale has been further eroded by long-running fears that the militants have insider help-everything from infiltrators in the ranks to corrupt Afghan forces selling equipment to the Taleban. IS, which has expanded its presence in Afghanistan since it first appeared in the region in 2015, has also scaled up its attacks in Kabul, including those on the country's Shiite minority. Last month a suicide attacker blew himself up outside a political gathering in Kabul, killing at least 14 people in an attack claimed by IS.

'King of the North'

In another development, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani yesterday announced the resignation of a powerful politician nicknamed "King of the North", sidelining a rival but angering the politician's party who said he had been sacked. Atta Mohammad Noor, 54, had been governor of Balkh province since 2004 but had recently been critical of the National Unity Government led by Ghani. Noor has previously hinted that he may run for the presidency in an election in 2019. Ghani has not yet confirmed if he will run again.

The president's office in a statement said Noor, a senior leader of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami party, had resigned from his post. "President Ashraf Ghani has approved the resignation of the governor of Balkh Mr Atta Mohammad Noor," the statement said, adding that engineer Mohammad Daud has been appointed to take his place. Noor was not immediately available to comment. But Jamiat-e Islami in a statement strongly condemned what it called a "decision by the presidency", branding it "hasty, irresponsible, against the security... and in contradiction of the principles of the National Unity Government".

It said Jamiat would announce its "clear position" on the move once its leader Saluddin Rabbani, who is also foreign minister, returns from an official trip. He is currently in Greece. Noor recently called for the return of Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord who fled to Turkey in May after he was accused of arranging the rape and torture of a political rival in 2016. Earlier this year Noor met Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior figure in the mainly Shiite Hazara ethnic community, as well as Dostum in Turkey to form the "Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan".- Agencies