Spring insurgency begins as rebels attack cities across Afghanistan

Raids on diplomats' homes in Kabul raise serious doubts about West's exit strategy

Cities and towns across Afghanistan came under sustained attack and parts of the capital were under siege yesterday in a co-ordinated offensive by insurgents.

Multiple explosions and heavy machine-gun fire echoed through Kabul as bombers and gunmen targeted areas where the parliament, foreign embassies and Nato's headquarters are based.

The raids, which resulted in President Hamid Karzai being forced to go into "lockdown" in his residence, were the latest and most spectacular outbreak of violence that has continued for weeks, leaving dozens dead and injured and raising questions about the West's exit strategy from the long and bloody war.

While firefights continued in Kabul several hours after the first blasts in the early afternoon, there were suicide strikes at a US military base in Jalalabad as well as Gardez in the east and in Logar province near the capital, with militants attempting to storm the offices of the army, police and the intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security.

The British embassy in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul was one of those targeted, with two rockets hitting a guard tower, usually manned by Gurkhas, and a rocket-propelled grenade smacking into a house used by diplomats. A group of foreign analysts working for the UK-based company Adam Smith International were trapped inside a Ministry of Commerce building that had partially collapsed after being hit by heavy-calibre rounds.

The Afghan interior ministry said two Afghan security force members and 17 militants were killed. And 17 Afghan police officers and nine civilians were injured.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, with the spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid saying in a text message to the media that it was the start of the spring offensive: "We sent suicide bombers to Kabul and they are now taking over parliament, the US embassy and all diplomatic buildings."

But last night, Afghan and Western officials were saying there were indications it was the handiwork of the Haqqani network, which carried out the last major assault on diplomatic missions in Kabul in September, lasting for almost 20 hours. The network is believed to have ties to the Pakistani military and secret police, the ISI. Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said: "It's early, but the initial findings show the Haqqanis were involved." A senior American military source said "the [telephone] intercepts make interesting listening".

The attacks in Afghanistan came a day after the Taliban freed 400 prisoners in Pakistan's North Waziristan area, including one man, Adnan Rashid, jailed for the attempted assassination of the country's former President Pervez Musharraf. A police chief in the area insisted that such an operation could have been mounted only with official collusion.

In another attack in Kabul in February, an employee of the Interior Ministry shot two American advisers dead, leading to the withdrawal of Western personnel from government departments, a key element of the transition process of President Hamid Karzai's government taking over control of security. Soon afterwards, a dozen suicide vests were found in the ministry, primed for detonation. More than 15 Afghan security personnel were subsequently arrested.

The current round of strife began in February with the burning of Korans and a US serviceman killing 17 villagers in March. The fears of enemies within for Nato forces rose with a number of lethal incidents of Afghan policemen and soldiers turning their guns on their supposed allies.

The scene in Kabul yesterday afternoon was one of chaos and fear with members of the public, including mothers and children, running through gunfire. Wazhma Frogh, an activist with the pressure group Afghan Women's Network, said "a bullet went past me, just missing me; it was very frightening".

Aminullah Amini, head of the parliament's media department, saw "seven or eight rockets fired towards the parliament. One was near a man on a bike, and he was thrown to the ground and didn't move. I ran away from the building but many members of parliament are still inside".

Mirwais Yasini, an MP from Nangarhar, said: "This shows the Taliban don't want peace. They don't want to negotiate. They are not serious. They want to continue the killing of innocent people."