Taliban car bomb strikes US-funded Counterpart International in central Kabul

Afghan security forces comb through NGO's offices, fighting militants and rescuing hiding employees floor by floor

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A car bomb and shooting attack targeting a US-funded NGO in central Kabul on Wednesday left at least five civilians dead, two dozen wounded and Afghan security forces responding to the assault with an hours-long clearance operation.

Afghan security forces killed five attackers who stormed the offices of Counterpart International, bringing an end to the assault, the Afghan Ministry of Interior said. The last of the attackers was cornered in the third floor of the four-storey building, Nasrat Rahimi, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry said. Eventually, all of the assailants were "brought down by Afghan forces," he said.

The Taliban quickly claimed the attack as the counter-terrorism operation went on, providing details of how they maximised casualties with a string of bomb blasts in the upscale Shahr Naw area of the Afghan capital. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the organisation was targeted for promoting the "inter-mixing" of men and women.

Wednesday's assault comes after the Taliban launched their annual spring offensive, ramping up attacks while in a period of tense peace negotiations with the US representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.

Members of the security forces responded to the attack on Counterpart International, combing through the organisation's building, fighting militants and rescuing hiding employees as they went.

More than 200 Counterpart International employees were taken from the scene, Afghan counter-terrorism police said.

One member of the Crisis Response Unit was killed in the operation. He is being hailed as a hero for evacuating civilians and fighting insurgents while fasting for Ramadan.

"The explosion was very strong," a witness who lived nearby told The National. "I'm on the eighth floor of our building and the windows and doors of our apartment were fully blown out."

A large explosion sent a huge plume of smoke into the sky above the PD10 area of the capital on Wednesday morning.

Thereafter, gunfire and large explosions could be heard across Kabul and fleeing victims poured out of the NGO's building.

Counterpart International runs a civil society engagement programme in Afghanistan to encourage peace, youth participation and human rights. It has been operating in the country since 2014 and has awarded more than $10 million (Dh36.7m) in grants to local organisations.

In a statement posted to their Twitter account, it said it is "incredibly saddened by this attack," and paid tribute to the "tremendous service to people in need" their colleagues provide.

The Taliban said it attacked Counterpart International for its ties to the US Department of State through their USAID funding and efforts in supporting women's empowerment. The group's spokesman said that after the first bomb, a second device was detonated near the security forces.

The US ambassador in Kabul, John Bass, condemned the attack saying it targeted an organisation that "helps local communities, trains journalists and supports the Afghan people".

And UNAMA, the United Nation's mission to Afghanistan called it "particularly deplorable" for "hitting civilians helping Afghans" and for taking place during Ramadan.

The Taliban are currently in peace talks to bring an end to the war that has ravaged the country for nearly two decades.

The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for a separate bombing in Lahore on Wednesday morning in which at least nine people died.