Kabul: Taliban militants struck in the heart of the Afghan capital on Monday, launching suicide attacks at key government targets including the presidential palace and locked security forces in running gun battles, which left 12 people, including seven attackers dead.
The brazen strike in the city was a clear sign the insurgents plan to escalate their fight as the US and its allies ramp up their own campaign to end the war. At least 40 people were wounded, officials said.
After a series of blasts and more than three hours of ensuing gunfights outside several ministries and inside a shopping mall, President Hamid Karzai said security had been restored to the capital, though search operations continued amid reports that attackers were hiding in the city.
It was the biggest attack in the capital since October 28 when gunmen with automatic weapons and suicide vests stormed a guest house used by UN staff, killing at least 11 people including three UN staff.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that 20 armed militants, including some with suicide vests, had entered Kabul to target the presidential palace, Justice Ministry, Ministry of Mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the centre of town.
Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rattled the city for hours. Debris was strewn on the streets, which were quickly abandoned by crowds that normally fill the area.
Defence Ministry spokesman Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi said a child and a policeman were killed. The Ministry of Public Health later said five people - a civilian and four security forces - were killed and 30 others wounded.
Security officials said at least nine attackers were killed -- five inside the shopping centre and four who blew themselves up elsewhere.
Mohammad Shah, who had escaped the building where he keeps a shop, said the gunmen had stormed in after an explosion at the gate to the nearby presidential palace. Security guards evacuated civilians while the gunmen rushed to higher floors.
Afghan forces recaptured the shopping centre after noon, killing five fighters there, a security source said.
While the siege was on, a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside another shopping centre nearby killing several police and security officials. A rocket later struck near a cinema hundreds of meters away.
Three suicide bombers loaded with grenades blew themselves up in different places: one near the Education Ministry, a second in a crowded square near the central bank and a third outside the shopping centre, a senior government official said.
Security now restored: Karzai
"The security situation is under control and order has once again been restored," President Hamid Karzai said in a statement after more than four hours of battles, when security forces finally recaptured the burning shopping centre.
The Defence Ministry said other fighters were still holed up in a cinema and fighting was still under way some hours later.
When the attacks began outside Karzai`s sprawling palace compound, he was inside swearing in new members of his cabinet.
"As we were conducting the ceremony of swearing in, a terrorist attack in a part of Kabul close to the presidential palace is going on. This is just one of the dangers," Karzai told ministers. "The danger that could harm Afghanistan is sowing national discord among Afghans."
US embassy condemns attack
US envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, who had left Kabul hours earlier for New Delhi, said: "The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack nor will they succeed, but we can expect this sort of a thing on a regular basis. That is who the Taliban are."
The US embassy condemned the attack.
"The Taliban have claimed responsibility for this attack so clearly aimed at the Afghan government and innocent civilians," the embassy said in a statement. "We will continue to stand with the Afghan people and their government and with our allies and partners around the world to defeat our common enemy and build a more secure and prosperous future."
(With Agencies` inputs)