Soon, heavily armed men were knocking on neighbors’ doors, charging down the stairs, and taking up positions on nearby balconies and rooftops. Shots were coming from several directions. Haidery and his family decided to flee and soon found themselves in a flood of locals rushing to flee the danger.
“The children were scared, but the police escorted us out of the area until we found a car,” Haidery said Thursday morning, shortly after the family returned home. He remembers hearing as a child that the Taliban extremists, who held power from 1996 to 2001, were bullies and killers. This time, he said, they looked different. “They are in charge of the government and they know they have to protect people.”
The battle raging that day, which was expected to last more than seven hours, was a high-stakes confrontation between Taliban forces and a group of commandos from the Islamic State, a rival Sunni Muslim militia that views Shias as apostates. He has repeatedly attacked the predominantly Shia Muslim minority neighborhood of western Kabul over the past eight years.
The clash also came at a time of particular tension and vulnerability for the country’s leaders, who were already facing an economic and humanitarian crisis. On Sunday, a US drone slammed into a house in a highly secure area of central Kabul, killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The stunning attack embarrassed Taliban leaders and threatened to shatter the 2020 US-Taliban peace deal that ended two decades of conflict.
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Since the Taliban returned to power last August, the Islamic State spin-off group known as Islamic State-Khorasan has increasingly challenged the regime’s ability to provide security. In April, the group bombed a high school and a crowded Sufi shrine in western Kabul, as well as mosques in two other towns, killing and injuring dozens. This time he attacked during the Shia commemoration of Muharram, a 10-day period of commemoration and mourning that Taliban security officials had gone to extra lengths to secure.
Throughout Wednesday afternoon, as gunfire erupted intermittently in the working-class neighborhood, the drama was hidden from the public as Taliban forces cordoned off the entire western sector of Kabul with dozens of roadblocks. But rumors quickly spread that the attackers had commandeered the orange skyscraper, the Karte Sakhi Tower, and taken several families hostage, firing on Taliban forces from within and preventing them from reacting freely.
Finally, just after 6 p.m., Taliban security officials announced that the siege was over. They said at least four Islamic State attackers were killed and one captured. They also said two Taliban soldiers died, including a female officer, but no civilians were injured. They did not explicitly acknowledge that families had been held hostage, but said they had “conducted the operation with precision” to avoid civilian casualties.
“These evil elements were striking civilian targets in Kabul and other parts of the country,” the statement said. “With God’s help, we managed to eliminate them.”
That evening, ToloNews aired a grainy, long-distance video showing Taliban forces throwing dynamite at a wall on the ground floor of the apartment complex, watching the wall explode in a cloud of debris, then pressing a group of civilians bent away from the placer.
News that the attackers had been thwarted was met with relief in the large west Kabul community, home to several hundred thousand members of the Shia and ethnic Hazara minority, where initial activities for Muharram had been abruptly halted . The spate of bombings in April had previously sparked angry protests from Shia leaders and activists, who were suspicious of Sunni leaders’ pledge to protect them.
This time the police went the extra mile to secure the community for Muharram, coordinating with local leaders and patrolling the area frequently. In interviews last week, many residents said they felt more confident about their safety than in previous years. Then it suddenly emerged on Wednesday that a Taliban security team carrying out a security sweep had come under fire from the skyscraper, just two blocks from the majestic blue-domed Karte Sakhi shrine that attracts thousands of people during the 10 day period. .
By early Thursday, however, calm had returned and the events of Muharram were beginning again. Shia and Sunni residents near the shrine praised the Taliban forces, saying they had fought hard to stop the terrorists among them. People brought tea and bread to police guarding access to the Karte Sakhi tower, which was now empty, riddled with bullets and wrapped in security tape. Shuttered stores reopened and families returned after spending the night with relatives.
“They sacrificed themselves for us, they evacuated all the houses safely and they prevented a great tragedy,” said Mohammad Farhad, 48, a former school administrator who lives a block from the tower. . “There was a lot of fear at first, but now people are going home peacefully.”
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A few blocks away, a man setting up a stall offering free juice and milk, decorated with colorful banners for Muharram, said he was glad the attackers had been arrested. But he still feared they would try again next week, during the final days of commemoration culminating in Ashura – the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s death in a 7th century battle – when public emotions peak amid penitential processions and dirges blaring from the loudspeakers.
“The Taliban kept their promise. Everyone saw that, and everyone is less scared now,” said Sayed Mansour, 26. “On the other hand, Muharram is not finished yet.