By Jalil Ahmad
HERAT, Afghanistan, May 23 (Reuters) - A handful of heavily armed insurgents, including suicide bombers, launched a rocket propelled grenade and gun attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan's western city of Herat hours before dawn on Friday, officials said.
Indian staff at the mission escaped soon after the shooting began at around 3 a.m.. Police said Afghan security forces had killed the attackers, who were holed up in buildings overlooking the consulate, following a firefight that lasted several hours.
"They fired a couple of RPG shots. It was dark and they couldn't verify where it was coming from," India's ambassador to Kabul Amar Sinha told Reuters by telephone.
He said there had been around 10 staff resident at the consulate in Herat, which stands close to the border with Iran and is Afghanistan's third largest city.
The attack underscored a worrying security picture as Afghanistan prepares to take over from foreign combat troops after more than 12 years of war against a Taliban insurgency and prepares for a presidential election run-off next month.
The consulate was guarded by a team of commandos from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Afghan security forces form an outer ring, an Indian security official in New Delhi said.
Herat police chief General Samihullah Qatra told Reuters four attackers, including suicide bombers, had entered houses close to the consulate before dawn and began shooting into the compound.
"There were three suicide bombers armed with AK-47, RPG, hand grenade and suicide vests. Our security forces killed all of them. Only five of our security forces were wounded."
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack and no one claimed responsibility, though suspicion would inevitably fall on the Taliban and other loosely associated groups .
On the other side of the country, in the northeast province of Badakhshan, Taliban fightes were holding 27 police and officials hostage, and dozens of people have killed or wounded.
Militants have repeatedly attacked Indian targets in Afghanistan. Last August, an assault on the Indian consulate in the eastern city of Jalalabad killed at least nine people, and earlier this year a suicide bomber was gunned down near the consulate in the southern city of Kandahar.
In 2008, suicide bombers attacked the Indian embassy in the capital, Kabul, killing about 50 people and wounding scores. There was another attack on the embassy in 2009.
Security officials in India believe that previous attacks on Indian missions in Afghanistan have been carried out by the Haqqani network, a Taliban and al Qaeda-linked group that has also long had ties with Pakistani intelligence.
U.S. officials and India had also accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence of organising the 2008 attack in Kabul.
Pakistan has long complained about the number of Indian consulates in Afghan cities, fearful that friendship between India and Afghanistan could leave it isolated, and NATO prepares to withdraw the competition for influence in Kabul is expected to become fiercer.
On this occasion, however, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry was quick to issue a condemnation of the attack on the Indian consulate.
"No cause justifies targeting of diplomatic missions. It is a matter of relief that no one from the Consulate staff was hurt," the ministry said in a statement issued in Islamabad.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Jessica Donati in KABUL and Sanjeev Miglani in NEW DELHI; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)