Fighting raged across downtown Kabul yesterday after a group of Taliban militants equipped with suicide vests and automatic weapons attacked major buildings in the city centre, including the presidential palace, in one of their most ambitious assaults.
Two civilians and three security personnel were killed and 71 others, half of them civilians, were wounded in a series of blasts and gun battles in the most secure area of Afghanistan's capital city. The government claimed to have killed seven Taliban fighters.
The brazen attacks came as President Hamid Karzai was swearing in his new cabinet ministers inside the palace. The insurgents had slipped into the city centre in Western clothes to carry out co-ordinated attacks on multiple high-profile targets. They had access to plentiful arms and ammunition and appeared to be receiving directions from outside.
The sophisticated level of planning behind the violence drew comparison with the terror attacks carried out in Mumbai in 2008 and, even as the dead and injured were being carried away and the emergency services struggled to bring spreading fires under control, Afghan officials, like their Indian counterparts, were blaming the Pakistani secret police, the ISI, as the hidden hand behind the mayhem.
Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, said the attack had been planned outside the country. "We don't have training centres for suicide bombers in Afghanistan," he said. He added that the initial investigation revealed that "some of the bombers were not Afghans". Islamabad denied any involvement in the attacks.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of the allegation, yesterday's raid will be a source of acute embarrassment for Karzai and his Western sponsors. The insurgents showed that they could strike in the heavily guarded heart of Kabul, an area of ministries and foreign missions. The attack took place 10 days before the London summit on Afghanistan, which is intended to set out future international strategy towards the country.
The co-ordinated attacks began during rush hour on Monday morning when a suicide bomber, who had strapped explosives around his body, detonated himself in front of the Central Bank and the southern gate of the presidential palace, the Afghan defence minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, told reporters.
Five minutes later, a group of three bombers entered the Foroushgah Buzerg-e-Afghan shopping complex, tossing hand grenades at shopkeepers and their customers. The militants took up positions on the top of the five-storey building, from where they began firing at the Serena Hotel and the ministries of justice and finance.
At least one rocket-propelled grenade round landed in the five-star hotel, but did not cause any casualties because the guests were sheltering in the hotel's bunker. While the security forces were trying to advance towards the occupied shopping mall, another bomber driving an explosive-laden ambulance was stopped by security forces as he was trying to enter the cordoned-off area.
"Fortunately our security forces identified the bomber and there were no casualties among our forces when he detonated the vehicle," Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, said. But the blast engulfed a new shopping centre close to the foreign ministry and wounded at least two local reporters and several passers-by, witnesses said.
The four-hour standoff eventually ended when government forces killed the militants in the shopping mall along with two more bombers, who had barricaded themselves inside a nearby cinema building.
Afghan security chiefs insisted that only seven militants managed to breach the city's security belt and they were all killed. But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, said that as many as 20 of the group's fighters and suicide bombers had taken part in yesterday's assault.
"[The] attack was a strong message to the foreign troops and to the Westerners that we can attack anywhere at any time," Mr Mujahid said. "Today we showed that you can not dismantle the Taliban by increasing your forces."
More than 110,000 international troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan. As part of President Obama's military surge, 30,000 additional US and 6,800 extra N ato forces are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan in the summer to try to turn the tide against the Taliban militants who have become more powerful than ever.
Although Kabul, the most stable city in the country, has experienced a number of attacks by Taliban in the past, yesterday's was the most brazen since the ousting of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Kabul, unlike Baghdad at the height of the Iraq conflict, had been relatively safe in the past, with the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, keeping a relatively successful check on infiltration into the city.
However, the insurgents have been able to inflict a number of blows on the NDS recently. One of the most damaging was the assassination of Abdullah Laghmani, the organisation's highly influential deputy chief, who was killed in a suicide bombing last September.
Mr Laghmani was a Pashtun in the Tajik-dominated NDS and had built up a network for gathering information from the Pashtun community which provides the recruiting pool for the Taliban.
The attack which claimed his life, appeared to have been organised with the aid of inside information, leading to fears that the Taliban had infiltrated the intelligence service. Mr Laghmani's death was followed in October by the storming of a UN guesthouse in Kabul which killed six staff members and prompted the organisation to evacuate more than half of its international workers from the country.