Taliban storm Afghan ministry, kill 5

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban fighters stormed the Ministry of Culture in the heart of Kabul on Thursday, killing five people in an attack the president said aimed at derailing the government's new effort to draw militants into a peace process and end a seven-year insurgency.

The fighters shot their way inside the building, where one of the militants blew himself up, a police guard wounded in the blast said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and gave a similar account.

"Our enemies are trying to undermine the recent efforts by the government for a peaceful solution to end the violence," U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.

The attack came three days after senior Afghan and Pakistani officials decided at a meeting held in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to reach out to the Taliban militants to propose talks on ending the insurgency. The meeting was part of a process initiated by President Bush and his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in 2006.

The Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan said the two sides recently had contacts in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the incoming head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, have both endorsed the efforts.

Karzai's remarks suggested that elements of Taliban are seeking to sabotage the nascent efforts for reconciliation. But the attack is not likely to derail the overture because after years of unsuccessfully trying to repress the Taliban by force with the help of U.S. and NATO troops, the government has concluded talks are the only way out of the conflict. The Taliban has proved resilient, emerging with new force this year to challenge the government.

While the Taliban regularly use suicide attacks against Afghan and foreign forces around the country, they rarely strike in Kabul.

Amir Mohammad, a police guard who was wounded in Thursday's attack, said three assailants opened fire on police guards outside the Ministry of Information and Culture before entering its cavernous hall where one of them blew himself up.

"There were three people. They were running. They opened fire on our guard first and then they entered" the building, Mohammad said from his hospital bed in Kabul.

The force of the blast flung Mohammed onto the street, where he lay unconscious among shattered glass and pools of blood.

Five people were killed in the attack, including a policeman, three ministry employees and a civilian, the Interior Ministry said.

An additional 21 were wounded, said Abdul Fahim, the spokesman for the Health Ministry, which supervises the hospitals where the injured were taken.

The culture ministry was a pointed target. Before the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden, the regime banned art, secular music and television, vandalized the National Museum of Afghanistan and destroyed artwork or statues deemed idolatrous or anti-Muslim. Taliban fighters also blew up two giant statues of Buddha, cultural treasures that had graced the Silk Road town of Bamiyan for 1,500 years.

The ministry is in the center of the city, at a busy intersection lined with shops. One of the side walls of the building collapsed, while glass littered the roads nearby and office equipment was scattered over the area. The light-blue metal gates in the ministry entrance were twisted from being flung open.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said three militants stormed the building by throwing hand grenades at the guards at the main gate. A man named Naqibullah from the eastern Khost province carried out the suicide attack, Mujahid told the AP. The other two men fled, he said.

Abdul Rahim, a witness, said he first heard machine gun shots and saw a policeman lying on the ground and then saw the explosion that rocked the building.

Ministry workers were helped out of the building by security personnel. Ambulances carried the wounded to hospitals.

Though attacks in the capital are rare, on July 7 a suicide attacker set off explosives outside the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing more than 60 people and wounding 146.

Four police were killed Thursday in Panjwayi district of Kandahar province when their patrol vehicle struck a newly planted mine, said Zulmai Ayubi, the provincial governor's spokesman. He blamed the Taliban for the attack.

More than 5,200 people have died this year in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan, according to a tally of figures compiled by the AP.

Associated Press reporters Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this story.