KABUL, Afghanistan, and NEW DELHI -- The Taliban carried out a coordinated attack Sunday on embassies, parliament and NATO headquarters in the most heavily protected areas of Kabul, a brazen display of growing confidence as foreign combat troops prepare to leave the country by 2014.
There were also reports of attacks in the two eastern cities of Gardez and Jalalabad.
The Afghan government said it had surrounded the locations in the capital occupied by the militants and had the situation under control.
The first sign of trouble in Kabul came when explosions erupted in the Akbar Khan neighborhood housing a number of diplomatic missions and NATO headquarters. This was followed almost immediately by gunfire, with smoke seen rising from several buildings on a brisk spring day as sirens screamed. Heavy gunfire continued for at least 30 minutes after the initial blasts.
Militants in a tall building fired rockets in several directions, the Associated Press reported, with some apparently focused on the nearby British Embassy. About the same time, the German and Russian embassies also reportedly came under fire.
The U.S. Embassy entered lockdown status on hearing the explosions and gunfire, spokesman Gavin Sundwall said, which he described as standard operating procedure in such situations, adding that all personnel were accounted for and safe.
This was followed by reports of a blast and gunfire near the parliament building on the other side of Kabul, with Turkish forces at their base on Kabul’s outskirts as well as an Afghan military academy also reportedly coming under direct mortar attack. All told, about seven sites were targeted, said NATO's International Security Assistance Force, adding that it had no immediate information on the number of confirmed casualties.
In Jalalabad, there were reports of four suicide attackers targeting the Jalalabad airfield housing U.S. troops. Local police said one blew himself up and three were intercepted.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the coordinated assault, which it said was part of its spring offensive involving dozens of suicide bombers in Kabul and three provinces around the nation equipped with suicide vests and rocket propelled grenades.
The coordinated attacks serve the Taliban’s interests in at least two ways, analysts said. It aims to help push foreign troops out of the country before 2014, the announced date for NATO to hand over security to Afghan forces, knowing that foreign governments are increasingly weary of the war’s cost in lost lives and money.
At another level, the Taliban is flexing its muscle for the political realignment likely to follow the withdrawal, choosing high-profile targets in the heart of the capital to intimidate and otherwise win over ordinary Afghans and showcase its ability to strike at will.
-- Aimal Yaqubi and Mark Magnier
Photo: Members of Afghan security force rush to the site of a battle in Kabul on Sunday after Taliban militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on Western embassies, NATO bases and parliament. Credit: Kyodo News / Associated Press