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US embassy in Kabul hit in Taliban rocket attack

KABUL — A pair of rockets fired by the Taliban struck the US Embassy in Kabul shortly before dawn Wednesday, sending hundreds of American diplomats and aid workers based at the mission scrambling into fortified bunkers to start their Christmas Day, the embassy said.

There were no reports of casualties at the embassy. But Afghan officials said another two rockets hit other parts of the city and three police officers were wounded when one of the rockets, which had not exploded on impact, detonated as they were trying to defuse it.

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The other rocket, which did explode on impact, did not cause any casualties or significant damage, said Kabul police.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack.

The insurgents said in a statement that they had struck the embassy and the headquarters of the US-led coalition, which is up the road from the mission, with four rockets.

“The magnitude of the attack and the scope of the losses have yet to be determined,” the statement said.

That last sentence was a step back from an earlier claim made by Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, who said in a Twitter message posted shortly after the attack that the insurgents had inflicted heavy casualties.

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The Taliban routinely exaggerate the effectiveness of their attacks, and the embassy said no one there had been killed or wounded.

Neither Mujahid nor other Taliban made reference to the attack’s occurring on Christmas Day. The holiday carries little significance in Afghanistan, where there are almost no Christians, and the Taliban more commonly try to time headline-grabbing attacks to Islamic holidays.

The embassy said it was still assessing the attack’s effects, but there were no reports of serious damage to any structures, including the main chancery building or the residential towers and trailers where staff members live.

It was not immediately clear which part of the well-fortified compound in the center of the city had been hit. Staff members at the embassy were given the all-clear to move around the compound about two hours after the attack, which took place around 6:40 a.m.

Whether the Taliban had actually intended to strike the embassy was also an open question. Although rocket attacks on Kabul have been relatively infrequent in recent years, they were once more common — and they rarely appeared well targeted.

A number of rockets fired in the run-up to the presidential election in 2009, for instance, appeared to be aimed at the presidential palace. Most ended up striking areas in the general vicinity of the palace compound, which covers dozens of acres in the middle of Kabul. Few caused serious casualties or significant damage.

The insurgents have had more success with hidden bombs.

One packed onto a bicycle was used Wednesday afternoon to target a group of police officers who were buying cooking gas from a shop in the main bazaar in Pul-e Alam, the capital of Logar province south of Kabul, said Din Mohammed Darwish, a spokesman for the provincial government.

“The explosion was very loud and heavy,” he said, adding that up to six people, including two police officers, were killed.

He said it was the first attack in Pul-e Alam in a month and a half. But Logar remains thick with Taliban, and bombings are relatively frequent in the province.

Earlier in the day, a roadside bombing in eastern Kabul wounded three Afghan police officers. Kabul police chief, Mohammad Zahir, said one suspect was arrested over that attack. Police later uncovered an unexploded bomb in the same area and successfully neutralized it, Zahir said.

Afghan insurgents have increased attacks in recent months, intensifying a campaign to regain territory as foreign forces draw down.

The US-led NATO coalition is rapidly drawing down its numbers in Afghanistan ahead of the end of its mission in 2014. Since March, Major General James C. McConville has closed 54 bases in the east, leaving just 11, plus a coalition presence at six Afghan facilities.

Around the country, there are about 87,000 coalition troops, 50,000 of them American, and that number is expected to be halved by early next year. Last year there were nearly 150,000 coalition troops.

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