Insurgents driving a suicide truck bomb and attacking on foot killed five people, including three United Nations employees, near the offices of the U.N.'s refugee agency in the southern city of Kandahar on Monday, officials said. Afghan forces and the militants exchanged fire for nearly seven hours before the militants were killed.
One insurgent slammed an explosives-rigged pickup truck into a checkpoint near the UNHCR's offices at about 6:10 a.m., and immediately afterward, three insurgents rushed into area, which houses several international aid organizations, the Interior Ministry said.
The insurgents seized control of at least one building, and the ensuing gunbattle with Afghan and NATO forces lasted until 1 p.m., the ministry said.
The UNCHR said three of its staff were killed and two wounded in the combined assault and bombing. It did not say whether they were Afghans or foreigners.
"This is a tragedy for UNHCR and for the families of the dead and wounded," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement. "It also underscores the great risks for humanitarian workers in Afghanistan."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave a slightly different version of the events.
"A car bomb was exploded at the gate of a local NGO that shares a common wall with the UNHCR compound," he said in statement. "When the wall collapsed, suicide attackers entered the U.N. premises."
Ban said: "Three U.N. security guards were killed and two others were wounded. Two security contractors were killed as well."
The U.N. Security Council condemned the terrorist attack "in the strongest terms" and called on the Afghan government to bring the perpetrators to justice and to take "all necessary steps" to protect U.N. personnel and installations.
In recent days, the UNHCR said the number of refugees returning from Pakistan had dropped sharply because of the deteriorating security situation and lack of opportunities in Afghanistan.
The assault was the second major attack in three days to target foreigner workers or NATO troops in the country, spotlighting the insurgents' ability to continue to carry out major attacks, despite a 10-year NATO campaign against them. The U.S.-led coalition is gradually handing over security responsibilities to its Afghan counterparts and plans to withdraw its combat forces by the end of 2014.
"Despite the insurgency's failures this past year, it remains capable and, enabled by safe havens in Pakistan, continues to contest (Afghan and NATO) progress in some parts of the country," German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a coalition spokesman in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul.
Jacobson also said the coalition and its Afghan partners had made significant gains against the Taliban and that incidents like the bombing in Kandahar were not indicative of the insurgents gaining strength.
"It is not to gain a military victory. It is to gain media" attention, he said.
The blast caused extensive damage to the U.N. agency's building. Associated Press video showed large chunks of the building's outer walls and its windows blown out, and the interior was in shambles. The street around the building was strewn with rubble.
The Taliban, for whom Kandahar is a traditional stronghold, claimed responsibility for the attack. Spokesman Qari Yousef said the insurgents were targeting what he claimed was a guest house affiliated with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The UNAMA does not operate a guest house in the area. The U.N. mission's mandate is to help the Afghan government with security, governance and economic development.
Following the bombing, five people _ four security guards and the district police chief _ were killed during the gunbattle with the insurgents, the Interior Ministry said. Six people, including a policeman, were wounded.
The ministry strongly condemned what it described as "an inhuman and un-Islamic terrorist attack against the Afghans."
UNAMA spokesman Dan McNortan said all of the agency's staff, both Afghan and foreign, was accounted for.
The attack comes two days after the Taliban launched a brazen midday suicide bombing in Kabul, striking a NATO convoy on Saturday and killing 17 people, including five NATO service members, one Canadian soldier and eight civilian contractors.
Associated Press writers Tarek El-Tablawy, Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah contributed.