Taliban militants launched suicide bomb and gun attacks on three Afghan government buildings in Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 26 people in one of their most daring assaults on the capital.
The defence ministry said eight suicide attackers also died in the near-simultaneous strikes on the prisons directorate, and justice and education ministries — the deadliest insurgent attacks in Afghanistan so far this year.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told AFP in a telephone call that 16 suicide attackers had entered the Afghan capital and would carry out a wave of strikes.
“We have registered 26 people killed and 55 wounded,” said health ministry spokesman Abdullah Fahim. All of the dead were men, except for one 13-year-old boy, he said.
Of the eight attackers killed, three blew themselves up and five — all at the justice ministry — were shot dead, the defence ministry said.
Witnesses of the attack on the justice ministry said several gunmen burst into the building and opened fire on security guards. Some managed to run up a few flights of stairs in the building, shooting as they went, they said.
At least 10 ministry employees and three security officers were killed, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar told reporters.
One of the attackers took two justice ministry officials hostage before killing them, intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh said.
The five attackers gunned down at the ministry were aged between 20 to 25, Saleh said, praising the security forces for thwarting an attack that may have lasted “several hours, several days.”
Mobile phones found at the scene showed the attackers had “sent three messages to Pakistan calling for the blessings of their mastermind” as they entered the building, Saleh said.
Afghan officials say many Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are planned in “safe havens” across the border in Pakistan, and that Islamabad has not done enough to curb extremist activity on its soil.
Similar allegations have been made about the November attacks on Mumbai that also involved multiple strikes by gunmen who killed 165 people in a siege that lasted 60 hours.
Witnesses said terrified justice ministry employees jumped from the windows of the four-storey building, while others locked themselves in their offices as heavy exchanges of gunfire continued for several hours.
A minute earlier, two suicide attackers struck the prisons directorate in the north of the city.
Atmar said six policemen were killed at the site and nearly 30 wounded.
At the same time another suicide attacker was shot dead at the education ministry in an incident that caused no casualties, the minister said.
Fahim, the health ministry spokesman, did not give a site-by-site breakdown of the death toll.
The Taliban spokesman, Mujahid, told AFP the militants had targeted the justice ministry and directorate of prisons in revenge for the government’s execution of Taliban prisoners last year.
An attacker blew himself up at the education ministry near the justice ministry to break up a security cordon so the other assailants could reach their intended target, he said, warning of further violence.
“More of our suicide attackers and guerrilla groups are settled in the city and when they have the opportunity, they will accomplish their attacks,” he added.
The Taliban, who were in government between 1996 and 2001, have carried out a series of suicide attacks across Afghanistan as part of a growing insurgency against the US-backed government.
In another attack claimed by the Taliban Wednesday, a French soldier and an Afghan interpreter were killed in an explosion and an ambush 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Kabul, the French military said.
Also on Wednesday, two roadside bombs killed eight Afghan security guards in southern Helmand province, police said.
The top international military commander in Afghanistan, US General David McKiernan, said the Kabul assaults showed the “barbaric” face of the Taliban.
He has asked for extra troops and equipment to tackle the insurgents who last year carried out a record number of attacks here.
President Hamid Karzai also condemned the blasts and ordered swift action against the perpetrators.
US President Barack Obama is considering a plan to double the number of US troops from the 37,000 already in the country and other allies have called on European nations to boost their contributions.
Richard Holbrooke, the new US envoy to the region, was meanwhile in Pakistan on Wednesday as part of efforts to conduct a comprehensive US policy review as Washington hopes to turn around the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.