KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide attack that paralyzed a key NATO headquarters at Kabul's international airport early Monday began, as it turns out, with a mugging outside a mosque.
The seven Taliban fighters drove into a residential neighborhood adjacent to the northern, military side of the airport, in a car and a delivery truck, about 4 a.m. Monday. They got out and tried to enter a house, but the gate was locked, said a man named Berhannudin, who was walking with a friend to a nearby mosque for morning prayers. All but one were in the uniform of the Afghan border police, he said, which has its national headquarters nearby.
At first, Berhannudin -- who, like many Afghans, uses only one name -- thought the men really were police. Then the one in civilian clothes pointed a pistol at another man outside the mosque and demanded his cellphone before the men returned to their vehicles.
What happened next was a five-hour orgy of gunfire and explosions, as the men took up positions in a massive four-story home under construction about 350 yards north of the airport's security perimeter and opened fire on the operational headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the headquarters of the Afghan air force.
The attack by the seven Taliban not only paralyzed the base for hours, but also terrorized the Afghan neighbors, who cowered in their homes waiting for the gun battle to end.
In a modest single-story home a few feet from the house the insurgents occupied, Sayed Maqbol, too, was awake for morning prayers when he heard the pops and hisses. At first, he first dismissed the noises. Kabul's notorious power grid acting up again, he thought. But then the rocket-propelled grenades Taliban fighters were shooting from the mansion's upper floors began to detonate near and inside the airport, and they began spraying machine-gun fire at the airport and around the neighborhood.
Mr. Maqbol reached for his cellphone and called police. Police arrived within minutes, he said, and began exchanging fire with the militants. Then reinforcements poured in, eventually including dozens of Afghan regular and special operations soldiers and intelligence service commandos. They fired hundreds of rounds of light and heavy machine-gun fire and RPGs, as the insurgents fought back.
Eventually, firing from the Afghan security forces grew so intense, Mr. Maqbol said, that the remaining attackers were forced into the lower floors and basement, where they no longer had a clear shot into the airport or compound. At that point, he said, police surged into the neighborhood and pulled his family and other civilians to safety.
The fighting continued for hours, with dozens of explosions -- several, it turned out, from suicide vests worn by the attackers. Two Afghan army helicopters circled the scene for part of the battle, joined for awhile by a pair of Black Hawks usually flown by the NATO-led coalition.
Finally, the shooting died to a trickle, and booms came only sporadically. Then it was done, and the Afghan authorities loaded into police pickups that transported them to the house.
The attack was an unsuccessful echo of an assault last year on the main airfield U.S. Marines used in restive Helmand province. Those 15 attackers, dressed in U.S. uniforms, breached a lightly defended side of Camp Bastion and attacked a row of hangars. They killed two U.S. Marines, wounded eight others and a civilian contractor and caused about $200 million in damage to aircraft.
Kabul's police chief told journalists Monday that the latest attackers also may have planned to try to breach the base wall, perhaps with a cache of explosives in their truck. But a police RPG destroyed the truck.
This time, there were fewer than half as many attackers, and the results were much different. The attackers never entered the airport, Afghan officials said, and there were no casualties except for two civilians with minor injuries and the dead insurgents.