KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – Three foreigners were among five killed when Taliban militants stormed a US aid organization in Afghanistan Friday, as General David Petraeus arrived in Kabul as the new war commander.
Another 20 people were wounded in the pre-dawn attack on the compound of aid contractor Development Alternatives Inc (DAI) by a militant gang which included at least two who blew themselves up, President Hamid Karzai said.
"In total three foreigners have been killed. One Briton, one Filipino and one German. Two Afghans have also been killed -- a guard and one policeman," Kunduz governor Mohammad Omar told AFP.
The German citizen was a security guard, said a US embassy official. NATO said seven other foreigners were injured, while the British embassy in Kabul confirmed one of its citizens was also injured.
US-based DAI spokesman Steven O'Connor said four security contractors were killed. "One was British, one was German and two were Afghan nationals," the spokesman said.
The attack in the northern city of Kunduz was "the work of the foreign mercenaries who do not want the people of Afghanistan to achieve a better life", Karzai said in a statement.
It took place just hours before Petraeus arrived in Kabul as the commander of 140,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan fighting the escalating Taliban-led insurgency.
"General Petraeus arrived in Kabul by plane at 6.30 pm (1400 GMT) and took a helicopter to ISAF headquarters," said an official speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Petraeus is expected to make his public debut in Kabul on Saturday, when he attends celebrations at the US embassy marking the Fourth of July as US independence day.
As he arrived, the US embassy issued a statement condemning the Kunduz attack as "cowardice".
"This is another tragic reminder of the life threatening-circumstances that our Afghan and international partners face every day as they work side-by-side with the Afghan government and its people to improve conditions in the country for a better future," it said.
The US State Department said two of the injured were Americans.
Karzai said 6 "terrorists" were involved, adding the attack "aims to prevent the reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan".
The fighting, which lasted about 7 hours, ended after the final 2 militants inside the building were killed, police said.
Smoke billowed from the building, which was surrounded by NATO and Afghan troops after the ambush.
"The first suicide attacker detonated at the entrance, the second detonated inside the premises, killing one foreign national," Kunduz governor Omar said.
German and US troops are based in Kunduz under NATO's operations to quell a Taliban insurgency which has been intensifying during the nearly nine-year conflict.
Northern Afghanistan has largely escaped the violence that blights the south, mainly because the population is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, rather than the Pashtuns who make up the bulk of the Taliban.
In the past year, however, violence in the region has escalated as the Taliban converge on roads that bring supplies from Central Asia to military bases in Afghanistan.
DAI is a so-called "implementing partner" of Washington's international aid arm USAID. It is believed to have opened its Kunduz operation about four months ago.
Such contractors are playing an increasingly important role in Afghanistan, using billions of dollars in aid pouring into the impoverished country in an effort to rebuild after 30 years of war.
"The actions taken by the EI security staff in defense of the compound and project staff were nothing short of heroic," DAI president and chief executive James Boomgard said in a statement.
He was referring to Edinburgh International, the security subcontractor.
The Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, are stepping up attacks on foreign targets in response to intensified efforts by the US and NATO to rout the militants.
US aid contractors have been attacked across Afghanistan in recent months, hampering their efforts to recruit foreign staff as part of the "civilian surge" to speed development.
NATO said Friday that two of its soldiers had been killed in insurgent attacks, one in eastern Afghanistan, the other in the south, bringing the death toll so far this year to 325.