KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that Afghanistan and the United States are engaged in peace talks with the Taliban, even as insurgents stormed a police station near the presidential palace, killing three people.
The brazen attack in the heart of Kabul's government district provided a sharp counterpoint to Karzai's announcement that the U.S. and Afghan government are in talks with the Taliban, the first official confirmation of such discussions. The violence also underscored the difficulty facing any possible negotiated settlement to the decade-long war.
Men dressed in Afghan army uniforms stormed the police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, said Mohammed Honayon, an eyewitness. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that one of the attackers detonated a suicide bomb vest outside the gates while the others rushed in and began shooting.
The crackle of gunfire echoed through the empty streets typically bustling with shoppers and government employees on a Saturday, the start of Afghanistan's work week. The fighting ended by 3 p.m. local time when security forces shot dead the two other attackers. Two police officers and a civilian were killed in the attack, and four officers and eight civilians wounded, the Interior Ministry said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to The Associated Press, saying the group dispatched three suicide bombers.
The assault occurred shortly after Karzai announced during a speech at the presidential palace that his government and the U.S. have begun preliminary negotiations with the Taliban aimed at ending the conflict.
"In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen," Karzai said. "Peace talks have started with them already and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations."
Karzai said some of the Taliban emissaries that have met with members of the peace council he set up were only representing themselves, while others were speaking for the broader movement. The exact nature of the contacts was not immediately clear, and further details were not available.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not return a call for comment Saturday.
Attacks like the one on Saturday in Kabul are rare.
The capital is one of seven regions scheduled to be handed over to Afghan security control in late July. It is part of NATO's efforts to begin handing over guarding the nation ahead of its planned 2014 withdrawal from the country. The U.S. also plans to start a drawdown of troops in July.
The last major attack in Kabul took place last month when a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital in Kabul in late May. He killed six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing three.
Attacks have increased in Afghanistan since the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's yearly spring offensive.
Associated Press writers Ahmad Seir and Amir Shah contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.