KABUL (REUTERS) — Afghanistan’s Taliban gave the United States a taste of the ferocious hostility it faces if it tries to unseat them, when thousands of its supporters stormed and torched the deserted U.S. embassy in Kabul Wednesday.
Within hours of the assault, the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, told his people he saw less likelihood of an attack since Washington had no proof that Osama bin Laden was involved in suicide hijack attacks in the U.S. two weeks ago, which have left nearly 7,000 people missing and feared dead.
Before he spoke, a peaceful protest by government officers and students in Kabul spiraled into a frenzied attack on one of the last U.S. symbols in the Afghan capital.
Although all U.S. diplomats and staff left the embassy in 1989, the sprawling complex — once a key listening post in central Asia — remained mothballed, its diplomatic status respected by all who have controlled Kabul since.
It was not clear whether Wednesday’s attack was orchestrated or spontaneous.
Some armed men were clearly trying to hold back the crowd, and city firefighters worked hard to tackle the blaze, but other Taliban fighters joined in enthusiastically.
Two turbaned, black-clad Taliban shimmied up the main entrance to the building and used a crowbar and hammer to rip off the huge metal U.S. seal hanging between the pillars.
Boys jumped and waved their arms in jubilation as men used axes to hack at the windows of the main building to gain entry.
Amid scenes of pandemonium, fires were started and black smoke billowed into the sky over Kabul. Young men ripped up cabling from walls and pathways to feed the inferno.
The hulks of dozens of abandoned embassy vehicles — long cannibalized for spare parts — were also set upon and burned.
It was the biggest show of anti-American and pro-Taliban support since Saudi-born Islamic militant bin Laden was first implicated in the devastating Sept. 11 attacks.
The United States says bin Laden — who lives as a “guest” of the ruling Taliban — masterminded the attacks on New York and Washington, and has vowed to punish him and his protectors.
“We will support Islam and bin Laden,” the crowd chanted as they marched on the embassy. “The U.S. government should learn a lesson from our defeat of the Russians and the British.”
A day earlier, Mullah Omar urged Americans not to blindly follow their government in acting against Afghanistan. He has urged his people to be ready for jihad, or holy war.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States held the Taliban responsible for the security of the embassy compound.
“They must assure that these facilities are protected,” he told a daily briefing. “These incidents today demonstrate once again how out of step the Taliban is with its international obligations.”