By Elyas Wahdat
KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Insurgents in Afghanistan's violent east will target courts and judges after the execution of two fighters convicted over a brutal bank raid, one of the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network said on Monday.
At least 40 people were killed when seven gunmen and suicide bombers, dressed in border police uniforms, attacked an office of private lender Kabulbank on February 19, triggering gunbattles that lasted several hours.
Security camera footage showed insurgents shooting those inside the bank, some as they cowered on the floor in fear and others with their hands raised in the air, in one of the most savage attacks in Afghanistan for months.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's intelligence agency, said the two men were hanged in Kabul's Pule Charkhi prison on Monday for their part in the attack.
It named the two men only as Zarjam, a Pakistani national, and Matiullah, from eastern Kunar province near the border with Pakistan.
The NDS said Zarjam's body would be handed over to Pakistani embassy officials in Afghanistan and that Matiullah's body would be returned to his family in Kunar.
Violence in the east has risen dramatically since U.S. and NATO forces launched major operations in Taliban strongholds in southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces over the past 18 months in a bid to arrest a growing insurgency.
The insurgency in the east however is much more fragmented, with the Haqqani network and fighters from other groups, as well as criminal elements, adding to the complexity. The porous border with Pakistan's largely lawless northwest, where fighters have safe havens, adds another layer of difficulty.
The Haqqani network, considered one of the most dangerous insurgent groups in the east and architects of some of the worst attacks there, threatened reprisals over the executions.
"If our man in Afghan custody is executed, we will launch a new operation to only target judges and courts," Sirajuddin Haqqani said before the executions were confirmed by the NDS.
The secretive Haqqani network rarely makes public statements and Haqqani's comments were relayed to Reuters through Salahuddin Ayoubi, a top Haqqani commander.
Haqqani denied that civilians had been targeted during the bank attack. He said the mission "was to kill Afghan troops who were there in Kabulbank in civilian clothes."
"Any ruling from the court against our man, will have a severe consequences for the executioners, we will not spare them," he said.
Kabulbank, itself embroiled in a corruption scandal involving hundreds of millions of dollars, handles the salaries for hundreds of thousands of Afghan police, soldiers and civil servants.
The Haqqani network is nominally headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and has long had ties with Pakistani spy agency the ISI. Effective leadership of the group has passed from the ailing Jalaluddin to Sirajuddin, his eldest son.
Insurgents have vowed to target Afghan security forces, as well as government figures and foreign forces, as fighting drags into the tenth year of an increasingly unpopular war.
Violence has flared across Afghanistan since the Taliban launched their spring offensive in early May. Civilian and military casualties already hit record levels in 2010 and are following a similar trend this year.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)