By Amie Ferris-Rotman and Rob Taylor – Reuters April 15, 2012
KABUL – Gunmen launched multiple attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday, assaulting Western embassies in the heavily guarded, central diplomatic area and at the parliament in the west.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the assault, one of the most serious on the capital since U.S.-backed Afghan forces removed the group from power in 2001.
“These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
The Taliban said the main targets were the German and British embassies and the headquarters of Afghanistan’s NATO-led force. Several Afghan members of parliament joined security forces repelling attackers from a roof near the parliament.
Taliban fighters also launched assaults in at least two provinces, a spokesman for the insurgents said.
The Taliban said in a statement three hours into the attack that “tens of fighters”, armed with heavy and light weapons, and some wearing suicide-bomb vests, were involved.
The coordinated attack is bound to intensify concern in the run-up to the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The assault appeared to repeat the tactics of an attack t in Kabul last September when insurgents entered construction sites in several places to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said it had been easy to bring fighters into the capital, and they had had inside help to move heavy weapons into place.
Afghan security forces, who are responsible for the safety of the capital, were scrambling to reinforce areas around the so-called green diplomatic section of the city centre.
Attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade that landed just outside the front gate of a house used by British diplomats in the city centre and smoke billowed from the area after the blast, a Reuters witness said.
British embassy sources said staff were in a lockdown.
Two rockets hit a British Embassy guard tower near the Reuters office in the city.
Fighting was going on at some facilities of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and near the U.S., Russian and German embassies, ISAF said via Twitter.
An ISAF spokesman said there were no reports of casualties in the attacks on possibly seven locations in Kabul, and the U.S. embassy said in a statement all its staff were accounted for and safe.
A U.S. defence official who declined to be identified said the attackers were using mostly small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and “perhaps even suicide bombers”.
Three rockets hit a supermarket that is popular with foreigners near the German Embassy, Reuters witnesses said.
Smoke rose from the vicinity of the embassy while women scurried for cover as gunfire crackled.
As the shooting went on, U.S. army convoys could be seen coming to the area accompanied by Afghan police in flak jackets.
Embassy alarms were sounding. Staff at the embassies were not available for comment.
SIMULTANEOUS ATTACK IN EAST
Attackers also fired rockets at the parliament building in the west of the city, and at the Russian embassy, a spokesman for the parliament said.
Most MPs had left the building before it came under attack, said a lawmaker. However, one of several who fought back from a roof, Naeem Hameedzai, told Reuters: “I’m the representative of my people and I have to defend them.”
Afghan media said insurgents had stormed the Star Hotel complex near the presidential palace and the Iranian embassy. Windows of the hotel were blown out and smoke billowed from the building.
In the eastern province of Paktia, NATO helicopter gunships attacked insurgents holed up in a building next to a construction site while in the eastern city of Jalalabad, a Reuters witness said that Taliban attacked a foreign force base near a school.
One Taliban insurgent was killed, another blew himself up and a third was captured. A blast also went off near the airport in Jalalabad, a Reuters witness said.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball, Hamid Shalizi, Reuters Television and Pictures in KABUL, and Missy Ryan in WASHINGTON; Writing by Michael Georgy and John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel)