KABUL- Taliban gunmen launched a brazen assault on the centre of Kabul on Monday, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at several locations and militants battling security forces from inside a shopping centre engulfed in flames.
The insurgents failed in an apparent attempt to seize government buildings, but demonstrated their ability to cause mayhem at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to rally support for an expanded military mission to fight them.
It was the worst attack on the city in nearly a year and came as Afghan President Hamid Karzai was swearing in cabinet members. Gunfire and loud explosions shook the city and a huge column of smoke poured out of the shopping centre, where gunmen battled security forces for hours. Sporadic fighting continued in some areas although Karzai said the city was back under control.
Security officials said at least nine attackers were killed -- five inside the shopping centre and four who blew themselves up elsewhere. The Health Ministry said four Afghan security force members and a civilian were killed and 38 people wounded.
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.
The Taliban said 20 of their fighters were involved in the attacks, which they said targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the centre of town.
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.
U.S. 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 attacks were a slap in the face for an initiative to lure Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, which Karzai plans to announce at an international conference in London this month.
The initiative is a key part of Obama's new strategy, which will also see 30,000 extra troops sent to turn the tide against a mounting insurgency.
A Reuters correspondent at the scene of the shopping centre siege saw the body of a shopkeeper carried out. People wept over the body as gunshots could be heard.
Later, a Reuters cameraman saw the bullet-riddled bodies of two of the militants on the street, outside the building where security forces had dumped them.
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. A Reuters reporter at the scene could still hear gunfire, and the head of the Kabul police criminal investigations department said battles were still underway behind the justice ministry building.
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 metres 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.
Government buildings and diplomatic offices in Kabul are heavily fortified but a series of attacks in the past year, including one which killed five foreign U.N. staff at a guest house, underscore the city's vulnerability.
Last February, attackers stormed the justice ministry and other government buildings and Taliban fighters have mounted similar commando raids in other cities.
A Reuters reporter overheard security forces saying on a radio that the car bomber who struck the second shopping centre had driven a military ambulance, suggesting fighters may have posed as members of Afghan security forces or infiltrated them.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, Hamid Shalizi, Golnar Motevalli, Sue Pleming, Jonathon Burch and Emma Graham-Harrison; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Tait)