Kandahar: The Taliban say an attack on government installations in a key city in southern Afghanistan is aimed at seizing control of Kandahar.
Saturday`s brazen assault casts doubt on how successful the US-led coalition has been in its nearly yearlong military campaign to restore security and bring stability to the former Taliban stronghold.
The attack started around midday and gunfire was still ringing through Kandahar more than five hours later as military helicopters fired from overhead.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi says more than 100 militants have flooded the city, including men freed in a bold prison break last month.
It was the latest in a series of strikes by the Taliban insurgency at high-profile government installations.
Shooting started shortly after midday and the gunfire was still ringing through Kandahar city hours later. Government and hospital officials confirmed that the governor`s compound, the mayor`s office and the intelligence agency offices had all been attacked, along with a number of police stations.
The Taliban said a large number of their militants flooded into Kandahar city with the aim of targeting any building used by the government.
"Our attack was against every place where government officials or security forces are found," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told a news agency over the telephone.
As the fighting raged, government spokesman Zalmai Ayubi said over the phone from inside a safe room in the governor`s compound that the "Taliban attacked a number of different locations" but he could only confirm the governor`s compound, the mayor`s office and a police station were under assault.
At least 24 wounded had been brought to the main city hospital by afternoon — 14 civilians and 10 police, according to an emergency room doctor who only gave one name, Irsan. He said the wounded were coming in from the areas around the governor`s compound and the intelligence office, along with other neighborhoods of the city.
There were no immediate reports of deaths from the government, though the Taliban said that their militants had managed to enter at least the governor`s compound and claimed that there were deaths.
"A lot of people have been killed," Ahmadi said.
A news agency reporter near the governor`s compound said the shooting there was focused at the back of the compound, near the governor`s residence. At least two larger blasts were also heard.
Shopkeepers throughout the city closed down their stores and the streets emptied of people and cars as Kandahar residents bunkered down to wait out the fight. Police blocked journalists from getting near the buildings under assault. Military helicopters hovered overhead.
The Taliban appear determined to prove their strength following a winter of being beat back by international and Afghan troops, who destroyed key weapons caches as they moved in.
Last month, the militant group launched deadly attacks inside the Defense Ministry, at a joint US-Afghan base and at the Kandahar police headquarters. The group also sprung more than 480 inmates from the Kandahar city prison in a stunning jailbreak through a tunnel that had been dug over months.
The attack also came a day after the Taliban issued a statement saying that Osama bin Laden`s death would boost the morale of the insurgency and threatening that they would show their strength.
"The martyrdom of Sheik Osama bin Laden will give a new impetus to the current jihad against the invaders," the group said in Friday`s statement. "The forthcoming time will prove this both for the friends and the foes."
But Ahmadi said this was not a revenge attack for bin Laden`s death but a plot that had been in the works for months.
"This operation has been planned for a long time, for the past month or two," Ahmadi said.
The Taliban said last week, before the strike on bin Laden, that more large attacks were planned as part of their spring offensive.