Police fought a three-hour gunbattle in the center of an Afghan provincial capital Monday, finally killing two Taliban militants who stormed a multistory market with dozens of civilians inside, an official said.
During the shootout, terrified shopkeepers shuttered their doors and residents stayed inside for fear of being caught in the crossfire as army and police rushed to the scene, reportedly backed up by NATO forces. Three civilians and one police officer were wounded in the fighting in the eastern province of Paktia, said the deputy provincial police chief.
AP Television News video from the scene after the operation was over showed a man holding what appeared to be an unexploded suicide vest, but reports differed on how many attackers there were and whether they were wearing explosives.
The violence comes as Afghanistan prepares for a surge of new foreign troops in the next few months to help the weak central government beat back a resurgent Taliban that has taken over vast swathes of the countryside.
The Taliban controls most of Paktia province, which borders Pakistan, and the strengthening insurgency has previously launched assaults on the provincial capital, Gardez, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Kabul.
Shortly after Monday's assault began, officials said that five militants armed with guns and suicide vests had stormed the building near the provincial police headquarters in Gardez and that at least three had been killed.
But Ghulam Dastagir, Paktia's deputy police chief, told The Associated Press by telephone that there were only two attackers armed with assault rifles, a machine gun and about 40 rifle-launched grenades.
He said no suicide vests were found when police finally killed the militants and searched the building. A separate statement later from the national Interior Ministry, however, said the attackers were wearing explosives-filled vests.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press said that there were five attackers, all wearing suicide vests.
Shops throughout the city were closed as residents hunkered down in their houses to wait out the fighting. University student Jumakhan, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he saw the fighting start and ran behind a nearby building. He said he could see NATO forces in the streets, along with Afghan army and police.
Dastagir said the attackers were on the top floor of a four-story building housing a supermarket and shops, about 165 yards (150 meters) from the police headquarters. The floor itself was under construction, but there were about 50 civilians in the building when the fighting broke out, forcing police to conduct the operation carefully, he said.
There was no immediate word on the condition of the three civilians and police officer who were wounded, he said.
The most recent major insurgent attack on Gardez was in July, when militants launched nearly simultaneous attacks on security facilities, killing three police and three intelligence officers.
President Barack Obama is planning to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan to try to stem rising violence and reverse gains made by the Taliban since the 2001 invasion that drove their hard-line Islamist regime from power. Another 7,000 troops are to come from other countries to bolster security.
Also Monday, the Defense Ministry said 24 militants were killed in operations the day before. The ministry said eight insurgents were killed in southern Helmand province, six in Ghazni in the east, seven in northern Kunduz province, two in Kandahar province in the south and one in Wardak, west of Kabul.
NATO said a joint Afghan-international force killed several militants on Sunday after coming under fire while searching a compound in Wardak province.
In Nangarhar province in Afghanistan's east, a civilian was killed and two were injured when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, said Gafor Khan, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.