Acting on an intelligence tip, Afghan police said they arrested five would-be suicide bombers as they tried to enter Kabul, thwarting a major attack and capturing the largest such team ever in the capital.
Police believe the bombers were sent by an Al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group based in Pakistan, and their capture follows widespread rumors that militants were planning attacks in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul.
Heavily armed police stopped the would-be bombers about 7 am on Thursday at a checkpoint in the southeastern edge of the city as they traveled in an SUV with explosive vests hidden beneath the engine block, according to Abdul Ghafar, deputy commander of the Afghan National Police crisis unit.
Ghafar said police had been given a description of the vehicle and were able to seal off the area. Police said they believed the would-be bombers were headed for a safe house somewhere in the capital to make final preparations for their suicide assault. "If this team had made it through it would have been a disaster," Ghafar said. "I would call this a major blow to the terrorists."
Police said the five men - ranged in age from 20 to 25 - refused to give their names or nationalities. But authorities were convinced they were sent by the Haqqani group, a Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban faction with close ties to Al-Qaeda.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the Taliban were unaware of the apparent plot, saying "we have no information on these people."
The five were shown to journalists at a heavily guarded police base on the city's outskirts, along with their vehicle and bags containing explosive material and suicide harnesses. They stood silently with their backs to the journalists, their eyes covered by blindfolds and hoods and their wrists in handcuffs. The Haqqani group has been blamed for other attacks in Kabul, including the October 28 assault on a guesthouse used by UN workers. Eleven people were killed, including five UN staff and the three attackers. It may have played a role in the December 30 suicide attack that killed seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer at a tightly secured CIA base in Khost province.
The network's ailing leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a hero of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. A US missile strike February 18 apparently targeted Haqqani's son Sirajuddin, who effectively runs the group. Instead the missile killed another son, Mohammed, and three associates.
The last major attack within Kabul took place February 26 when suicide bombers struck two small hotels in the center of the city, killing at least 16 people, including six Indians. Afghan authorities blamed the attack on Lashkar-e-Taeba, the same group India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.
For several weeks, security officials have warned of militant plans to launch more attacks in two Kabul neighborhoods that are effectively the city's diplomatic quarter. The assaults were purportedly designed to show the militants can strike in the capital at a time when they are under pressure from US, Afghan and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.
NATO is gearing up a major operation to drive the Taliban from Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and birthplace of the Islamic militant movement.
Also Thursday, NATO reported one international service member was killed in fighting with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan but gave no further details. It was the 10th combat death among the NATO force this month.
In the southern town of Marjah, the Taliban killed a local tribal leader, his nephew and three other people, government spokesman Daud Ahmadi said. The insurgents are waging a campaign of fear and intimidation to prevent townspeople from cooperating with Afghan and U.S. forces, which seized the opium poppy growing community in a major military operation in February.
U.S. and Afghan officials hope to establish a model government in the longtime Taliban stronghold to win the loyalty of the population. But officials acknowledge that progress has been slow because of the insurgent campaign.
In a statement Thursday, the US military said the release of a video showing a US soldier held by Afghan insurgents only inspires further efforts to find him.
The Taliban posted a video Wednesday of a man identified as Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan last June. It shows Bergdahl, the only known American serviceman in captivity, pleading to be returned home and saying the war in Afghanistan is not worth the human cost.
"The continuing use of Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl as a means of propaganda is a deplorable act and only fuels our efforts to find him and bring him home," a US spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said in the statement.
Bergdahl disappeared June 30 in Paktika province of eastern Afghanistan. He was serving with a unit based in Fort Richardson, Alaska, and had been in Afghanistan for five months.