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Five die as militants attack Kabul

Taliban militants struck in the heart of the Afghan capital today, launching suicide attacks on key government targets in a clear sign the insurgents plan to escalate their fight as the US and its allies ramp up a campaign to end the war. At least five people, including a child, were killed and nearly 40 wounded, officials said.

The Defence Ministry said seven attackers also had been killed.

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 28 October when gunmen with automatic weapons and suicide vests stormed a guest house used by UN staff, killing at least 11 people including three UN 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 centre 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. Defence Ministry spokesman General 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 on a day in which confirmed Cabinet members were sworn in by Karzai despite the rejection by parliament of the majority of his choices. Presidential spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the swearing-in had occurred as scheduled and everybody in the palace was safe.

Militants have become increasingly brazen in challenging Afghan and international forces as the US and Nato allies begin sending 37,000 more troops to join the fight.

Richard Holbrooke, the US 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 10am 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 centre 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 BBC 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 centre.

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 US and Nato troops are being sent to Afghanistan, yet security in the capital is deteriorating."

The US Embassy condemned the attack.

"The Taliban have claimed responsibility for this attack so clearly aimed at the Afghan government and innocent civilians," the embassy said in a statement. "We will continue to stand with the Afghan people and their government and with our allies and partners around the world to defeat our common enemy and build a more secure and prosperous future."