KABUL: Explosions and gunfire rocked the Afghan capital Kabul Sunday as suicide bombers struck across Afghanistan in coordinated attacks claimed by Taliban insurgents as the start of a spring offensive.
The US, British, German and Japanese embassy compounds came under fire as militants attacked the city’s diplomatic enclave and tried to storm parliament — sparking a gun battle in which lawmakers and bodyguards fired back from the rooftop.
“The security forces are handling the situation very carefully, the terrorists are still resisting in two areas, but overall the situation is under control and the security forces have surrounded them,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP several hours after darkness fell.
A total of 19 insurgents died and 14 police and nine civilians were wounded, the Interior Ministry said.
Embattled President Hamid Karzai was moved to a safe area and his palace went into lockdown as the capital was hit by a wave of attacks including a failed attempt to target one of his deputies, officials said.
Insurgents armed with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests launched what the Taliban spokesman said was a “coordinated attack” in Kabul and three eastern towns near the capital.
In Kabul the insurgents took up positions in construction sites overlooking government buildings, diplomatic missions and other high profile targets, unleashing a stand-off with security forces throughout the afternoon and into the night.
Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Karzai’s two deputies was one of the targets of Sunday’s attacks.
Mashal said the group of three tasked with attacking Khalili’s home in west Kabul was captured before reaching their target.
They claimed they were linked to the Haqqani Network, he said, a hardcore Taliban branch accused of masterminding most of the high-profile attacks in Kabul and known to have close links to al Qaeda.
The attacks will raise fears over the precarious security situation in Afghanistan as NATO prepares to withdraw its 130,000 troops by the end of 2014 and hand responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told AFP that Afghan forces, whose ability to withstand the Taliban after 2014 has been questioned, were taking the lead in countering the assaults on Kabul.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the ability of Afghan security forces to respond to the attacks was a “clear sign of progress”, while ISAF labelled the attacks “largely ineffective”.
‘Enormously proud of Afghan security forces’ quick response’: ISAF commander General
“I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today’s attacks in Kabul,” said ISAF commander General John Allen.
“They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained.”
But the latest in a series of spectacular attacks shows militants still have the ability to strike at the heart of the capital, including ISAF bases.
“We took fire (on) Camp Eggers (a major ISAF base in Kabul), ISAF headquarters, Camp Warehouse (along the Jalalabad road) and Camp Gazni (also on Jalalabad road). No one was hurt,” an ISAF spokesman James Graybeal told AfP.
“We have confirmed attacks on the US, the German and British embassies and had earlier reports of attacks on the Russian embassy,” said General Carsten Jacobson, ISAF’s chief spokesman.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency said three rockets landed in the Japanese embassy but nobody was hurt and staff had evacuated to a nearby air raid shelter.
Outside the capital, militants attacked government buildings in Logar province, the airport in Jalalabad, and a police facility in the town of Gardez in Paktya province, where a NATO helicopter was reportedly deployed against them.
A Taliban spokesman said “a lot of suicide bombers” were involved in the attacks, which herald the annual fighting season that follows Afghanistan’s harsh winters.
Zabihullah Mujahed, the Taliban spokesman, told AFP by phone from an unknown location, that the attacks were a message to the Kabul government and its Western military backers.
“The Kabul administration and the invading forces had said some time ago that the Taliban will not be able to launch a spring offensive. Today’s attacks were the start of our spring offensive,” he said.
Several attackers tried to storm the Afghan parliament but were engaged by security forces and driven back, parliamentary media officer Qudratullah Jawid told AFP.
MP Mohammad Naeem Lalai told AFP lawmakers joined the security forces in firing on militants as they tried to enter parliament, which was in session.
Sunday’s assault was the biggest in the capital for several months.
In September last year Taliban attacks targeting locations including the US embassy and headquarters of foreign troops in Kabul killed at least 14 during a 19-hour siege. And in August, nine people were killed when suicide bombers attacked the British Council cultural centre.