Fighting rages as Taliban launch attacks on Kabul
The Taliban launched a wave of gun and bomb attacks on Kabul on Monday, with at least two insurgents killed and 13 people injured as fierce fighting erupted in the heart of the Afghan capital.
A series of explosions rocked Kabul, with smoke billowing out of at least two shopping centres, and intense gun battles raged between militants and Afghan security forces as police and military snipers patrolled rooftops.
"It is our work, the targets are the (presidential) palace, the finance, justice and mines ministries, and the central bank," a purported Taliban spokesman told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"Twenty of our suicide bombers have entered the area and fighting is ongoing," the spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, adding that one militant had detonated a suicide vest at the entrance to the presidential palace complex.
Insurgents stormed a five-storey shopping mall and were exchanging gunfire with security forces surrounding the building, witnesses said, while local television showed a second shopping centre spewing smoke.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Afghan security forces had secured roads in central Kabul as Taliban militants took over buildings in the political and commercial heart of the city.
"Initial reports are they have killed at least two armed insurgents at the shopping centre after clearing the building," the ISAF statement said.
Army and police snipers took positions on buildings around Pashtunistan Square in the centre of the capital after the attacks, which appeared to be well-coordinated and involve a large number of gunmen.
"I heard the blast then we started running, but we happened to be running towards the explosions," said witness Bahram Sarwary.
"I saw smoke coming from a building near the central bank and the presidential palace and I saw at least one person injured," he said.
Afghanistan's health ministry said 13 people had been wounded.
"Most of them are civilians but they also include security personnel," ministry spokesman Ahmad Farid Rahid said.
The central business district of the Afghan capital is the nexus of political, business and diplomatic life.
Television stations showed the Qari Sami shopping mall in the centre of city -- believed to have been taken over by the militants -- burning and billowing smoke.
A second shopping mall, the Gulbahar Centre, about one kilometre (half a mile) away was also shown spewing smoke. Security personnel were heard saying that another explosion had taken place there.
Gunfire continued to ring out over the city -- where the streets were deserted but for the heavy presence of police and army, television picture showed and witnesses said.
Sporadic explosions, possibly of rocket-propelled grenades, could be heard as armoured vehicles moved into position outside major government ministries and the presidential palace, while a huge explosion was heard mid-morning.
The attacks came a day after the government said President Hamid Karzai was to announce a new plan aimed at forging peace with the Islamist Taliban and other militants fighting to topple his administration.
Karzai has long called for peace talks with the Taliban -- even offering government posts to its leaders -- but the militia has refused dialogue until the withdrawal of international troops on which Kabul relies for security.
Rockets were also fired into the heavily fortified diplomatic area of Wazir Akbar Khan on Saturday night, coinciding with visits by the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The last major attack on the capital was on December 15, when a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle outside the homes of former senior government officials, killing eight people and injuring more than 40.
On October 28, a guesthouse occupied by United Nations employees was overrun by Taliban militants, who murdered six UN workers. The incident prompted the organisation to evacuate most of its Kabul-based staff.
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