KABUL: The Taliban launched a series of coordinated attacks on as many as seven sites across the Afghan capital on Sunday, targeting NATO bases, the parliament and Western embassies. Militants also launched near-simultaneous assaults in three other eastern cities.
At least two assailants were killed and five people wounded in Kabul, where fighting was still raging hours after it began. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility, saying in a statement that scores of suicide bombers were carrying out strikes in the capital and three other provinces — Paktia, Nangarhar and Logar.
The attacks were the most spectacular in the heavily guarded capital since September, and demonstrated the insurgents' resolve heading into the spring fighting season, when warmer weather typically brings increased attacks. The scale and scope of the violence also underscored the Afghan security forces' struggles to protect even the heart of national power as the U.S.-led international force speeds up the transfer of security responsibility ahead of the end of the NATO mission in 2014.
The Kabul attack began Sunday afternoon with explosions in the central neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including that of the U.S., are located. Gunfire erupted soon after the blasts, forcing people caught out in the street to scramble for cover.
More than 10 explosions in all rocked the city, and heavy gunfire crackled across the rooftops for hours as smoke rose over the skyline and sirens wailed.
In an e-mailed statement, Mujahid said the attacks were targeting NATO headquarters, the British and German Embassies, the Afghan parliament building, the Serena and Kabul Star hotels, and sites along Darulaman road, where the Russian Embassy is located. At the same time, Taliban fighters launched assaults on Afghan and NATO installations in the capital cities of Nangarhar, Logar and Paktia provinces, he said.
"In all these attacks, tens of mujahedeen fighters equipped with light and heavy weapons, suicide vests, RPGs, rockets, heavy machine guns and hand grenades are attacking their targets," Mujahid said.
He told The Associated Press in a phone call that the insurgent group had planned the assault for two months to show the extent of their power after being called "weak" by NATO forces.
"We are strong and we can attack anywhere we want," he said, adding that the assault was in advance of the insurgency's spring offensive, which would be announced soon.
The American Embassy said in a statement that there were attacks "in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy." The German Foreign Ministry said there was some damage to the grounds of the German Embassy, but it did not appear that anyone had been hurt.
Militants holed up in a tall building still under construction were firing rockets in different directions, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. It was not immediately clear what they were targeting, but shots appeared to be focusing on the nearby British Embassy.
Britain's Foreign Office could not provide details of the attack.
"We can confirm that there is an ongoing incident in the diplomatic area of Kabul," a spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "We are in close contact with embassy staff."
Across town, residents reported a blast near parliament as militants took over a nearby building and opened fire.
Mohammad Nahim Lalai Hamidzai, a lawmaker from Kandahar, said opened fired from parliament on a nearby building under construction where militants were hiding out.
"I shot up to 400 or 500 bullets from my Kalashnikov at the attackers," Hamidzai said. "They fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the parliament. The fight was around the parliament, the Russian Embassy and Vice President (Mohammed Karim) Khalili's house."
Militants also launched mortars at international military bases on Jalalabad road on Kabul's outskirts, according to an AP reporter at the scene. A joint Greek-Turkish base came under heavy fire and forces were responding with heavy-caliber machine guns.
A police officer said a suicide bomber had occupied a building near the bases and was shooting toward the Kabul Military Training Center. The officer spoke anonymously because he was not an authorized spokesman.
At least five people were wounded in the violence across Kabul, said Kabir Amir, the chief of the city's hospitals.
Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said two suicide attackers were killed — one who was firing from a building under construction behind the Kabul Star Hotel and another in the fighting near parliament.
The coordinated assaults showed a sophistication that is reminiscent of the last sustained attack in the heavily guarded capital in September 2011.
In that strike, six fighters with heavy weapons took over an unfinished high-rise and fired on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters about 300 meters (yards) away. They then held out against a 20-hour barrage by hundreds of Afghan and foreign forces. By the time the fighting ended, insurgents had killed 16 Afghans — five police officers and 11 civilians.
That attack was blamed on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based group allied with the Taliban.
Fighting was also continuing Sunday in the three capital cities of Logar, Paktia and Nangarhar provinces.
"In Logar, the attack is still going on and the area is surrounded by police. In Paktia, the area has been surrounded by police, but a gun battle continues," ministry spokesman Sediqi said.
In Paktia province, Afghan security forces had surrounded militants who were holed up in a building across from a university in the city of Gardez, said the deputy provincial police chief Mohammad Zaman. The deputy governor, Abdul Rahman Mangal, said two or three suicide bombers are believed to be involved in the attack.
In Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, militants launched separate attacks on a military airfield used by NATO and Afghan forces as well as a smaller NATO base nearby.
NATO forces killed three attackers wearing suicide vests who tried to storm the entrance to the airfield, said Amir Khan Lewal, deputy provincial police chief. He said one militant escaped.
At the nearby base, two attackers were shot dead before they could breach the base's defenses, but there was also an explosion inside the base, Lewal said. It was not immediately possible to reconcile his figures with those of the Interior Ministry.
NATO said it was aware of reports of an explosion in the proximity of a coalition installation near Jalalabad but could provide no details about the blast.
In what NATO said was an unrelated attack, an international service member was killed by a bomb in the east on Sunday. No further details were immediately available.