Taliban attacks in Kabul kill at least 19

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Taliban insurgents attacked two government buildings in Kabul today killing at least 19 people, officials said, in one of the most audacious attacks on the capital by the Islamist group since their expulsion in 2001.

Gunmen stormed the Justice Ministry close to the presidential palace, killing two government employees inside, while two suicide bombers attacked another state building in the north of the city, killing at least eight people, officials and witnesses said.

The incidents come at a time of worsening security in the country and a day before Richard Holbrooke, the new US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was expected to visit Kabul.

A private television station quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying seven of its fighters attacked the Justice Ministry and a Prison Department office building in revenge for the treatment of jailed insurgents.

Four would-be suicide bombers were shot dead by security guards inside the Justice Ministry and one more outside the building, while another militant was gunned down by police outside the nearby Ministry of Education, a security official said.

"During the operations, four terrorists were killed inside the Justice Ministry. Our operations still continue," Zemarai Bashary, interior ministry spokesman said, adding he had no further details about casualties.

Three security guards were also shot dead by the insurgents outside the Justice Ministry, which is close to the Presidential Palace in a heavily fortified part of Kabul.

"Security forces rescued us. I saw the bodies of two suicide bombers, perhaps more of them are being held up. Officials are still being held inside," said a Justice Ministry official, who did not want to be named, after escaping the compound.

Intermittent gunfire could be heard outside the ministry as police scaled the building using ladders to try and enter from its top floor windows, a Reuters witness said.

In the north Kabul suburb of Khair Khana, two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a Prisons Department building, killing at least eight police officers and numerous civilians, a senior police official said on condition of anonymity, adding that the attacks were coordinated.

A third would-be bomber escaped, a policeman at the scene said.