KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban today denied any role in this week’s attack on an International Committee of the Red Cross compound in eastern Afghanistan, saying they had previously cooperated with the aid agency and did not support targeting it.
The rare public denial by the insurgents deepened the mystery of who was behind Wednesday’s assault in the city of Jalalabad, which began when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the compound’s gate and another gunman burst into the complex. An Afghan guard was killed in the explosion, and seven international staff inside the compound were later rescued by police.
The attack was the second in a week targeting aid groups in Afghanistan, raising worries that insurgents now consider humanitarian workers as prime targets along with international and Afghan security forces.
Five days earlier, a car bomb hit the housing compound of the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration in the heart of Kabul, setting off an eight-hour battle between insurgents and police before the attackers were killed. Three Afghans also died in the fighting, and 10 foreign aid workers were rescued.
Afghan Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said today that the Taliban would never attack an independent aid group.
“We are not involved, and we are not supporting this kind of attack,” he said in a brief emailed statement.
The Taliban claim they never target civilians or humanitarian aid groups, but they have occasionally attacked United Nations guest houses or groups they say are working with U.S. and Afghan spy agencies.
In last week’s attack on the IOM compound, the Taliban quickly claimed responsibility, saying they were targeting trainers linked to the CIA.
The Red Cross has rarely been hit in the more than 12 years since the Afghan war began in late 2001. Considered one of the most respected agencies in the country, it has good relations with all parties to the conflict. It is also a conduit for families to communicate with detainees taken off the battlefield, including the Taliban.
Afghanistan is the site of one of the Red Cross’s biggest operations worldwide, with some 1,800 staff working in 17 locations, the organization says.
Red Cross spokesman Robin Waudo said today that he could not comment directly on the Taliban denial but would include it in its own investigation.
He refuted earlier reports that the Red Cross had suspended operations across Afghanistan.
Red Cross workers were told not to travel for two days, but he said the agency’s orthopedic clinics in Kabul and elsewhere would continue with food distribution and other aid work while the agency evaluates security.
“The humanitarian assistance that we’ve been providing is required,” Waudo said. “But also we have to balance that with the security of our colleagues.”
Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, also said that the group had given its blessing to the Red Cross workers to conduct polio vaccinations in areas the insurgents’ control in Afghanistan.
In neighboring Pakistan, for example, a separate branch of the Taliban oppose the vaccination campaigns and often attack polio teams, claiming the drives are a Western conspiracy and that the vaccines render male children sterile.
This year, the Afghan Taliban and other militants unleashed a wave of bombings and assassinations around the country in what is one of the most crucial spring fighting seasons of the 12-year war.
The violence is testing the ability of the Afghan security forces to respond with reduced help from international forces, who have begun a withdrawal that will see most foreign troops gone by the end of 2014.
Insurgents also have been staging complex attacks in Kabul and other urban areas, trying to weaken confidence in the government.
Hours after the attack on the Red Cross, Afghan intelligence agents in Kabul captured six militants with suicide vests and heavy weaponry who were planning a major attack in the capital, authorities said.