KABUL, Afghanistan — Four would-be suicide bombers attacked police headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar yesterday, killing at least 19 people, most of them police officers, in a complex attack involving three car bombs and a battery of rocket-propelled grenades, according to Afghan officials and witnesses.
The attack, the third suicide bombing in the city this year, caused near panic in central Kandahar as residents, hearing the heavy gunfire and explosions, fled the area and the police cordoned off all roads into the center.
The fighting continued for nearly five hours before the police killed three of the would-be bombers, and wounded and detained the fourth, according to Afghan police officials.
“Today, a big tragedy happened in Kandahar City,’’ said Torylai Wesa, the provincial governor. “Suicide bombers took shelter in a wedding hall near the police headquarters and aimed at it with rockets and grenades.’’
“They have fired four rockets, and three landed in the police headquarters, and one hit a school next to the headquarters and caused the injury of nine students,’’ he said.
Torylai condemned the bombings and sought to reassure residents. “Now the city is under control; the security personnel are looking for more suspects’ cars,’’ he said. “Whoever carried out these attacks are the enemy of Afghanistan and Islam; they will never be forgiven.’’
The dead included 15 police officers and one intelligence officer; there were also 25 civilians wounded along with two police officers and two members of the National Intelligence Directorate, said General Muhammad Salim Ehsas, the regional police director. In addition, a doctor at the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar said the hospital had received the bodies of three civilians killed during the attack.
The insurgents have repeatedly made a target of the Kandahar police headquarters and mounted a similarly complex attack last March 13 using multiple bombers; they killed 35 people then.
In yesterday’s attack, the insurgents were trying to breach the entrance of the police compound using bomb-laden vehicles and then rushing inside, Ehsas said.
“The plan was to engage police in explosions and then aim at the headquarters, but the police were alert,’’ he said, adding that there were six vehicles prepared to explode but that only three did. The other three were defused.
Lieutenant Colonel Webster Wright, the chief public affairs officer at the Kandahar air base, confirmed the general’s account.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack.
As sounds of gunfire echoed from different directions near police headquarters, merchants were locking their shops and rushing away from the shooting. The police blocked the roads to the center of the city even as people tried to escape the scene.
The attack was the fifth by suicide bombers in Kandahar Province this year, including three in the last two weeks in Kandahar. The most recent one, on Feb. 7, was carried out against customs officials and killed a US civilian adviser to the customs department.
The other suicide bombings in Kandahar Province this year included one in the city that killed the deputy governor on Jan. 29, one at a bathhouse in Spinbaldak that killed 17 people on Jan. 7, and another also in Spinbaldak that killed two Afghan police officers on Jan. 10.
In Kabul, Parliament, which was elected more than five months ago, was still struggling to organize itself and elect a speaker.