Taliban fighters launched a coordinated wave of assaults across Afghanistan Sunday, targeting a heavily protected district of Kabul that includes embassies and the presidential palace, as well as trying to strike an airbase used by American troops, officials said.
Fighting in the Kabul district that houses allied embassies lasted into Sunday night, CNN reported, but Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said the remaining insurgents have no choice except surrendering or to be killed by the Afghan forces.
These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
Some days back the secretary-general of NATO [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] on his visit to Kabul said that the Taliban are not strong enough now, Mujahid told the Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. This was a clear message to him to show how strong we are, and they did not put serious attention to Afghanistan issue.
Government facilities, and the American, German and Russian embassies in Kabul were targeted, NATO's International Security Assistance Force told CNN, saying up to seven locations were attacked.
Insurgents also took over a building in front of the Afghan parliament and began firing at it, the Kabul police chief's office said.
But police headed off some attacks, arresting two potential suicide bombers and their handler, and destroying a vehicle full of explosives, the statement said.
The Afghan government said it had surrounded the locations in the capital occupied by the militants and had the situation under control, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, said the Afghans beat back the insurgents without allied assistance.
They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated, he said. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained. He said the attacks were meant to signal that legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril, but the Afghan response is proof enough of that folly.
Seddiqi said two civilians were killed across the country, and 15 Afghan police officers were wounded. He said 15 of 19 suicide bombers were stopped before they could blow themselves up, with most of them killed by Afghan security forces.
And Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, said three men arrested in Kabul confessed to plotting to kill Karim Khalil, Afghanistan's second vice president. Two of the men planned to blow themselves up in Khalil's home, Mashal said.
The Taliban militia that once ruled most of Afghanistan claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it launched fighters into battle with suicide vests, RPGs and hand grenades in Kabul and the provinces of Nangarhar, Paktia and Logar. But Mashal said the three men who targeted Khalil confessed to being members of the Haqqani network, a separate insurgent group that sometimes allies itself with the Taliban.
The value of the Taliban attacks may prove more symbolic than strategic. Afghan security forces appeared to contain the situation without calling in for assistance from the American-led ISAF. But by deploying small numbers of fighters to a variety of locations in Kabul's diplomatic quarter, the Taliban has played to its own strength - of creating a sense of insecurity among the Afghan population, and generating headlines that will embarrass both the Afghan government and its Western backers.
Another 15 would-be attackers were arrested in Kunduz province plotting similar strikes, said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the chief of police for north and northeast Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying tens of suicide bombers were carrying them out in Kabul and three provinces around the country. The attackers have suicide vests, RPGs, and hand grenades, the Taliban said.
The Interior Ministry said initial intelligence on the wave of attacks across the country pointed to involvement of the Haqqani network, which is allied with the Taliban and one the most deadly groups fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
If the Haqqanis were involved, that is likely to hurt already strained ties between strategic allies the United States and Pakistan.
The United States has repeatedly urged the Pakistani military to go after the Haqqani network, which is believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.
It's too early to say, but the initial findings show the Haqqanis were involved, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Reuters.
CNN journalists heard gunfire, explosions and rocket-propelled grenade fire lasting more than an hour in central Kabul on Sunday morning. Small arms fire continued for at least three hours.
International troops did not respond to the attacks, leaving the operation to Afghan security forces, the NATO-led ISAF said.
The Afghan National Security Forces responded very well to the attack today around Kabul, ISAF said.
ISAF spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings described himself as underwhelmed by the attacks.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker expressed similar sentiments, telling CNN: The Taliban are very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting.
The situation in Kabul was largely under control by early evening Afghan time, around four and a half hours after the attacks began, he said.
Crocker said no Americans had been injured, but that a number of Afghans had been killed or wounded.
The United States embassy went into lockdown when the violence began, spokesman Gavin Sundwall said earlier, calling it standard operating procedure.
He said all staff were accounted for and safe, and that the embassy had no reports of injuries to its personnel.
He could not confirm that the embassy itself was the target of the attacks, but said gunfire had been heard in the vicinity.
Britain's Foreign Office said there was an ongoing incident in the diplomatic area of Kabul. We are in close contact with Embassy staff, all staff are accounted for.
India also said it had no reports of its nationals being wounded.
ISAF said it had no confirmed reports of casualties in Kabul.
Meanwhile, in the east of the country, four suicide bombers tried to attack the Jalalabad airfield where United States troops are based, the airfield commander said. One of the attackers blew himself up, while police intercepted the other three, commander Jahan Ngir said.