This post has been corrected. See below for details.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A team of burka-clad bombers and gunmen stormed a heavily guarded residential compound used mainly by Western contractors early Wednesday, killing seven people, including a carload of Afghan passersby and a student on his way to school, officials said. All four attackers died as well.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and described it as signaling disgust and anger at a surprise overnight visit by President Obama, who had departed the country shortly before the first heavy explosion echoed across the city.
Investigators expressed doubts, however, that a multi-pronged attack involving a vehicle bomb and a large array of weaponry could have been marshaled so quickly, because the U.S. president's presence was not disclosed until he was already on the ground, and he left before dawn.
Even so, the attack -- the second major strike in Kabul in less than three weeks -- served as the insurgents' thunderous rejoinder to Obama's assertion that the decade-long war has yielded sufficient security gains that Western troops can leave on schedule in 2014.
The Taliban movement also declared that Thursday will mark the start of its annual spring offensive, which it said would target foreign troops, Western contractors and members of the government of President Hamid Karzai.
With the arrival of warmer temperatures, the tempo of fighting has been quickening in recent days. On Wednesday, the NATO force reported the deaths of two service members in an explosion in Afghanistan's east. The east, which borders Pakistan's tribal areas and has been used as a springboard for attacks by insurgents, is expected to be the focus of fighting in coming months. The NATO force deployed in the east is primarily made up of Americans.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force sought to play down the significance of Wednesday's attack in Kabul, in which the assailants breached the tightly guarded contractor compound on the capital's eastern edge, known as the Green Village, but did not manage to kill any of its occupants, who swiftly took shelter in fortified bunkers.
A spokesman for the coalition, German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, portrayed the strike as a sign of weakness on the insurgents' part, noting that nearly all the victims were Afghan civilians. "This is another desperate attack by the Taliban," Jacobson said.
Echoing the Western military's narrative of a wide-ranging insurgent siege of sensitive installations across the capital on April 15-16, Jacobson also praised the performance of Afghan security forces, crediting them with quelling the attack. Witnesses said, however, that members of the Norwegian special forces came to the Afghans' aid, and the attackers managed to hold out for several hours before the last of them was cornered and killed.
Although the attack was relatively small in scale, it brought now-familiar scenes of chaos on a busy thoroughfare leading eastward out of the city. Plumes of smoke rose, bloodstained debris littered the street, and the headless body of one of the attackers was hurled 50 yards by the force of the explosion he set off.
Windows were shattered and blood trails stained the corridors in nearby Qabolbaye High School, where most of the 17 injuries took place. Officials said the dead included at least one student, four people who were driving by, another passerby, and a Nepalese security guard from the compound.
"I was very close when I heard a loud explosion at the gate, and saw smoke in the air," said Ahmad Wali, an 11th-grader at the school. "We all ran and hid," said 26-year-old Abdul Manan, who lives nearby.
Obama's visit came a year to the day after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a military garrison town in Pakistan, but the Taliban statement did not mention the anniversary. The group did, however, assail the long-term partnership agreement signed by Obama and Karzai during the visit, which promises U.S. aid and engagement for a decade after nearly all Western combat troops depart.
"The lethal blow ... was a message to Obama that the real Afghans are not those who sign such a pact of slavery and selling out their land," the Taliban statement said. "The true Afghans are those who deal the deadliest blow to the invading enemy."
[For the Record, 8:51 a.m. May 2: An earlier version of this post quoted a Taliban statement as saying, "The true Afghans are whose who deal the deadliest blow to the invading enemy." The actual phrasing was, "The true Afghans are those who deal the deadliest blow to the invading enemy."]
-- Laura King and Aimal Yaqubi