Gun battle near India's Afghan consulate after air base attack

Hamid Fahim
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An Afghan Quick Reaction Force (QRF) soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during an operation near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif on January 4, 2016

An Afghan Quick Reaction Force (QRF) soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during an operation near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif on January 4, 2016 (AFP Photo/Farshad Usyan )

Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) (AFP) - Troops battled Monday to end a 24-hour gun and bomb siege near the Indian consulate in Afghanistan's Mazar-i-Sharif city, after a bloody weekend assault on an air base in India near the Pakistan border.

Separately Monday a Taliban truck bomb struck a compound for foreign contractors near Kabul airport, killing at least one civilian just hours after a suicide bomber blew himself up around the same area.

The lethal assaults on Indian installations threaten to derail Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bold diplomatic outreach to arch-rival Pakistan following his first official visit to Afghanistan last month.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the raid on the diplomatic mission in northern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of assaults on Indian installations in the country.

Gunfights and grenade explosions echoed as commandos shimmied down a rope from a helicopter onto the roof of a building near the consulate where the assailants are holed up.

"The attackers are enemies of Afghanistan who do not want peace," said powerful provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor, overseeing the clearance operation.

"We will suppress them as soon as possible."

But 24 hours after the siege began, security officials said they were proceeding cautiously in the residential area to limit civilian casualties.

An Indian official, who was hunkered down in a secure area within the diplomatic enclave, told AFP by telephone Sunday that all consulate employees were safe.

Local police officials said some consulate workers had been evacuated.

But the fighting left one Afghan policeman dead and 10 others wounded, government spokesman Munir Farhad told AFP.

The attack followed a raid over the weekend by Islamist insurgents on an air force base in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

Seven soldiers were confirmed killed in the raid on the Pathankot base, which triggered a 14-hour gun battle Saturday and fresh rounds of firing Sunday.

Indian troops backed by helicopters searched the base Monday, with an official saying that the fifth attacker had been gunned down.

"We are moving step by step to sanitise the area and it's too early to say when the operation will be over," said a military official who asked not to be named.

The United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of Pakistani proxy Islamist groups fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The brazen assault -- a rare targeting of an Indian military installation outside Kashmir -- threatens to undermine the fragile peace process between the nuclear-armed rivals.

- 'Proxy war' -

The spike in violence came about a week after Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years.

The visit immediately followed a whirlwind tour of Kabul, where Modi inaugurated an Indian-built parliament complex and gave three Russian-made helicopters to the Afghan government.

India has been a key supporter of Kabul's post-Taliban government, and analysts have often pointed to the threat of a "proxy war" in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan -- the historic backer of the Taliban -- has long been accused of assisting the insurgents, especially with attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have also stepped up attacks on government and foreign targets in Afghanistan, underscoring a worsening security situation.

A Taliban truck bomber Monday struck the outer wall of Camp Baron, a heavily-guarded residential compound for foreign contractors, killing one Afghan civilian and wounding 13 others, the interior ministry said.

A bombing occurred close to where a suicide bomber struck earlier in the day, with no casualties reported.

The latest unrest coincides with a renewed international push to revive peace talks with the resurgent militant movement.

On January 11 Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to hold a first round of dialogue also involving the US and China to try to lay out a comprehensive roadmap for peace.

Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Afghan Taliban, hosted a milestone first round of talks in July.

But the negotiations stalled when the insurgents belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.

The attack on the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif was the latest on high-profile Indian targets in Afghanistan.

In 2008 a car bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 60 people and the facility was again hit by a suicide strike in 2009.