Taliban militants struck in the heart of the Afghan capital Monday, launching suicide attacks on key government targets in a clear sign the insurgents plan to escalate their fight as the U.S. and its allies ramp up a campaign to end the war. At least five bystanders and security forces were killed and nearly 40 wounded, officials said.
The Defense Ministry said seven attackers had also been 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.
After a series of blasts and more than three hours of subsequent gunfights outside several ministries and inside a shopping mall, President Hamid Karzai said security had been restored to the capital, though search operations continued amid reports that more attackers were hiding in the city.
It was the biggest assault on the capital since Oct. 28 when gunmen with automatic weapons and suicide vests stormed a guest house used by U.N. staff, killing at least 11 people including three U.N. staff.
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 center of the capital.
Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rattled the city for hours. Debris was strewn on the streets, which were quickly abandoned by crowds that normally fill the area. Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said a child and a policeman were killed. The Ministry of Public Health later said five people -- a civilian and four security forces -- were killed and 30 others wounded.
The attack unfolded as Cabinet members were being sworn in by Karzai despite the rejection by parliament of the majority of his choices. Presidential spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the ceremony had occurred as scheduled, and everybody in the palace was safe.
"As we were conducting the ceremony to swear in the Cabinet, a terrorist attack was going in an area of Kabul close to the presidential palace," Karzai told reporters. "This is just one of the dangers."
Militants have become increasingly brazen in challenging Afghan and international forces as the U.S. and NATO allies begin sending 37,000 more troops to join the fight.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. 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 first blast was heard shortly before 10 a.m. 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.
Azimi said a rocket slammed into the street near the bank's gate, but there were conflicting reports that the area had been struck by a suicide bomber or grenades.
Mohib Safi, the bank's deputy governor, said employees heard a strong explosion followed by gunfire. He said employees were safely inside and that no militants had entered the building.
Police sealed off a large area in the center 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 center and the Ministry of Education burned in the street.
Fighting raged for more than three hours and one four-story shopping center near the Justice Ministry was engulfed in flames after a group of militants entered the building, throwing grenades inside to frighten shoppers, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary.
Two suicide bombers later detonated their explosives and Afghan troops killed two other militants in the mall, Bashary said. He said other militants were holed up on the top floor, but officials later said the building had been cleared.
Afghan parliamentarian Daoud Sultanzai told the British Broadcasting Corp. by telephone that some of the militants had hijacked an ambulance and used it in one of the attacks. He did not say how he obtained that information.
NATO, which said international forces worked with Afghan forces to areas of the capital, said Afghan troops had killed at least two armed insurgents while clearing a building at a shopping center.
Elsewhere in the capital, Afghan troops also surrounded an area housing a well-known cinema and opened fire on militants believed hiding inside. A police officer at the site, Ghulam Ghaus, said the fighting ended after the last suicide attacker inside blew himself up. It wasn't clear how many others were in the building.
The ability of the insurgents to penetrate the heavily secured city -- even near the presidential palace and government ministries -- also was likely to deal a new blow to public confidence in the Afghan government, already tarnished by a fraud-marred election.
"We are so concerned, so disappointed about the security in the capital," said Mohammad Hussain, a 25-year-old shopkeeper, who witnessed the fighting. "Tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops are being sent to Afghanistan, yet security in the capital is deteriorating."
The U.S. and British governments condemned the attack and promised it would only strengthen their resolve.
Abdul Rahman Hamedi, 38, lamented the violence in the capital at a time when fresh international forces are being sent to southern and eastern regions where fighting has been worst.
"Today it looks like a coup," said Hamedi, who ran with his son from his shop. "Everybody said 'The city is full of suicide bombers.'"
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.