KABUL // The suicide and gun attack launched by Taliban fighters in the heart of the Afghan capital yesterday appeared intended to coincide with the swearing-in of new cabinet ministers in the presidential palace just metres away from the fighting, and revealed the ease with which militants can still operate even as international forces ramp up their war effort.
Fires were blazing after two shopping centres, a cinema and the only five-star hotel in Kabul were targeted by the heavily armed militants, who set off a wave of explosions, witnesses and officials said. At least 12 people including five civilians and security personnel were killed and more than 70 wounded, the public health ministry said, in the most spectacular strike on Kabul since Taliban militants laid siege to government buildings in February 2009, killing at least 26.
The defence ministry said seven attackers were killed in the brazen attack, which occurred 10 days before a major international conference in London on ways to shore up the Afghan government to confront the growing Taliban threat. The blitz of attacks began at the peak of morning rush hour, when suicide bombers stormed major government and commercial buildings around Pashtunistan Square, setting off explosions and sending clouds of black smoke into the sky.
Dost Mohammed, a shopkeeper working on the ground floor of a shopping centre targeted by insurgents, opposite the ministry of justice, said: "One of my friends called me from the second floor and said 'I can see a terrorist'. He asked, 'What should I do?' I told him, 'If you can, run away. If you can't, hide.' But when I was talking to him they shot him." Mr Mohammed said his friend had been shot once in the head and once in the neck.
He continued: "Then we saw a gunman. We ducked down very quietly and turned off our mobiles because if someone called us he would know we were hiding." As militants and security forces traded gunfire and the capital went into lockdown, 14 cabinet ministers took their oaths of office from the president, Hamid Karzai. A majority of his choices had previously been rejected by parliament. The 14 sworn in yesterday were among those approved.
After the series of blasts and more than three hours of subsequent gunfights outside several ministries and inside a shopping mall, Mr Karzai said security had been restored to the capital, though search operations continued amid reports more attackers were hiding in the city. "The enemies of the Afghan people conducted a series of attacks today, causing fear and terror among the population," Mr Karzai said.
"The president condemns these terrorist attacks, and has instructed the security entities to intensify security in the city and take action to arrest those responsible for these brutal and unpatriotic attacks." A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told the Associated Press that 20 armed militants, including some with suicide vests, had entered Kabul to target the presidential palace and other government buildings in the centre of the capital.
The attacks came a day after the government said Mr Karzai was to announce a new plan aimed at forging peace with the Taliban. Another Taliban spokesman told The New York Times that the assault was a response to US and Afghan proposals to "reconcile with and reintegrate Taliban fighters into mainstream society". "We are ready to fight, and we have the strength to fight, and nobody from the Taliban side is ready to make any kind of deal," Mr Mujahid told the Times. "The world community and the international forces are trying to buy the Taliban, and that is why we are showing that we are not for sale."
The first blast, shortly before 10am, was in an area where government buildings are concentrated, including the presidential palace, the central bank and the luxury Serana Hotel, which is frequented by westerners. A man in civilian clothes, who claimed to be an Afghan army officer, was trying to get to the scene near the Serena Hotel. "My son, my son is over there, my son is over there," he shouted. But the police would not let him get any closer. Then he shouted: "This is all the work of Americans. These actions are against Islam."
Police sealed off a large area in the centre of Kabul as the clash of machine-gun fire echoed through the mountain-rimmed city. Helicopters buzzed overhead. A car that exploded between a shopping centre and the ministry of education burned in the street. One four-storey shopping centre near the justice ministry was engulfed in flames after a group of militants entered the building, throwing grenades inside to frighten shoppers, according to an interior ministry spokesman, Zemari Bashary.
Two suicide bombers later detonated their explosives and Afghan troops killed two other militants in the mall, Mr Bashary said. He said other militants were holed up on the top floor, but officials later said the building had been cleared. A parliamentarian, Daoud Sultanzai, told the BBC by telephone that some of the militants had hijacked an ambulance and used it in one of the attacks. Nato, which said international forces worked with Afghan forces in areas of the capital, said Afghan troops had killed at least two armed insurgents while clearing a building at a shopping centre.
Elsewhere in the capital, Afghan troops also surrounded an area housing a well-known cinema and opened fire on militants believed to be hiding inside. Militants have become increasingly brazen in challenging Afghan and international forces as the US and Nato allies begin sending 37,000 more troops to join the fight. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban behind the attack were part of a set of extremist groups operating in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. "They are desperate people; they are ruthless," he said from New Delhi after a trip to Afghanistan. "The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack, nor will they succeed. But we can expect these sort of things on a regular basis."
The ability of the insurgents to penetrate the heavily secured city - even near the presidential palace and government ministries - was also likely to deal a new blow to public confidence in the Afghan government, already tarnished by a fraud-marred election. "Our government is very weak and we heard from some people that seven days ago it had advanced information about these attacks but did not care. Our blood is not important for them," said Taimur Shah, 25, a witness at the shopping centre behind the Serena Hotel and the justice ministry.
Mr Shah, who pulls a wooden cart for a living, said he heard some gunshots in the area and started to run, leaving behind his cart. "If they cannot keep security in the capital, Kabul, there is no point complaining about other provinces." Hasibullah, 28, another witness in the mall, condemned the insurgents, saying: "There are no American or Afghan soldiers here; they are all labourers just working to find their night's food.
"We still support the police, army and government. Look at those soldiers who are putting their lives in danger to save the people who are trapped inside the buildings. We just have one complaint. Several times [the insurgents] have attacked using the same techniques, so why can't the government stop them?" firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press