South Asia

How Kabul British Council raid unfolded

A wounded Afghan policeman is carried away from the site of an attack on offices belonging to the British Council in Kabul August 19, 2011.
Image caption The attack appears to have been intricately planned, first targeting the police checkpoint closest to the target

As suicide attackers launched a deadly intricately planned assault on the British Council in Kabul, the BBC's Bilal Sarwary followed events as they unfolded. This is his account:

It began in the small hours of the morning in a dusty, middle-class, residential neighbourhood of Kabul.

My tailor has a shop in the area and was up working early. Gunfire rang out when the first attacker opened fire on a key police checkpoint guarding an intersection close to the British Council, killing the officers there.

These are the policemen who provide the first flank of security to the immediate vicinity.

The tailor and other sleeping residents of this quiet area awakened by the gunfire did not know that the ordeal was set to last for hours.

After killing the policemen, attackers, wearing military-style uniforms, began to stream out from side streets that lead down from the mountains nearby.

"Their faces were covered. They were firing into air. They had heavy machine-guns and automatic weapons. They were shouting," the tailor said.

About 10 minutes after that first attack a vehicle packed full of explosives was detonated outside the main gate of the British Council building, bringing down a wall and killing a number of guards.

The blast was huge - it shook half the city and shattered windows in buildings nearby. The windows of my tailor's shop disintegrated and bullets still lie strewn on his street.

'Bodies left lying'

After the attack on the first police checkpoint there was no one left to put up a fight with the suicide attackers, who then entered the compound and began their assault in earnest.

This is an area with a lot of labyrinthine streets, shops and many places to hide. A butcher in the area said that after the initial attack when the police were killed at the intersection, the attackers began running at speed and shooting into the air, shouting at civilians, warning them to stay aside.

He said he saw up to nine attackers coming out of the side streets running towards the British Council building.

"Everyone was scared, including me," he said. "After two explosions, I saw two attackers open fire on police close to Nadaria school."

Several bodies were left in front of his shop.

This was a three-phase assault, intricately planned and executed.

Intelligence and police sources told me that the attackers, wearing burkas and posing as a family, managed to get through security checkpoints in the early hours of morning. Intelligence officials say they informed police that suicide attackers intended to attack Kabul.

Potent explosives were used in the car bomb and intelligence officials have said that the attackers brought enough weapons to fight for an entire day. They had rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine-guns and grenades.

The police station is not far from the area and police were at the scene about 13 minutes later. When they arrived, they discovered their colleagues at the main intersection dead.

They began fighting immediately. Nobody waited, I am told, and they just surrounded the building and engaged in battle. A few policemen were at a mosque nearby - as soon as they returned to their post they too began fighting.

British and New Zealand special forces arrived later and also surrounded the compound.

Attack alert

In that first half-hour there was confusion about what exactly happened and what the target was.

"We are fighting several suicide attackers. It is too early to say what the target of the attack is," Kabul's police chief, Gen Ayub Salangi, told me.

The vice president lives in the area - many thought that he was the target of the attack. But the first priority for security forces was to evacuate residents from the area

Just hours before the attacks began, in the hours after midnight, I had accompanied Gen Salangi on patrol as he crisscrossed the city checking the performance of officers at checkpoints and deploying extra staff, amid intelligence that an attack was imminent in central Kabul.

He said there were reports of an attack on a foreign embassy. We were on the streets until 02:00 local time.