Eight Taliban militants have attacked three government buildings in Kabul, in a brazen daytime assault that killed at least 26 people and wounded dozens of others. One group of attackers barricaded themselves in the Afghan Justice ministry, holding off police for a few hours before they were shot dead.
The attacks began shortly after 10:00 in the morning, when militants launched near-simultaneous assaults against the Justice Ministry and Education Ministry in the center of Kabul as well as the Afghanistan Prisons Directorate in the east of the city.
At the Justice Ministry, witnesses said five attackers armed with automatic weapons and grenades stormed the front gate, overwhelmed security guards and entered the main lobby, firing on people inside.
Ministry employee Muhammed Azgar was inside at the time of the attack.
He says they were shooting us from four sides - from the hallway, the back of the lobby and the stairs. He says everyone inside panicked and was running around, trying to find a way out.
The deputy of the Interior Ministry, General Muneer Mangal, said after the attackers stormed the lobby, they began making their way through offices on the second floor, shooting people they came across. He says they then barricaded themselves inside, forcing a standoff with security forces that lasted three hours.
He says with the help of the national police and national security directorate, security forces killed the attackers and prevented them from detonating vests packed with explosives.
At the same time militants were storming the Justice Ministry, one kilometer away officials said guards outside the education ministry identified one suicide bomber and killed him before he could detonate his explosives.
Minutes later, in eastern Kabul, two militants attacked a government office that oversees Afghan prisons. Police said one attacker detonated his suicide vest inside the compound and the other was shot dead by security guards.
Shortly after the attacks began, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed called VOA and other news outlets, saying suicide bombers were targeting the justice ministry buildings, trying to kill the justice minister. Officials later said the justice minister was inside the building at the time of the attack, but he was unharmed.
During a three-hour-long standoff with the militants in the center of Kabul, Afghan national army and police barricaded several city blocks as ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals.
Shops, businesses and government offices near the justice ministry shut down for the day, but for the rest of the Afghan capital, residents carried on as usual and there was no indication that terrorists had effectively shut down the heavily-fortified city center.
The series of attacks demonstrated a high degree of coordination and interior ministry officials said there are indications that some of the militants were foreigners. Similar gun and bomb attacks took place in Kabul last year, including separate assaults on the upscale Serena hotel and the Afghan culture ministry.
During a news conference in Kabul, the head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, said officials recently received information warning of what he called "spectacular" attacks involving multiple suicide bombers, but he said that at the time it was too generic for security forces to act on.
He said intelligence officials are already pursing leads that some of the militants had links to groups inside Pakistan.
"As they were entering the ministry of justice and before starting their indiscriminate killings, they sent three messages to Pakistan, calling for the blessing of their mastermind," he said. "And we are working on that angle of it as well."
The attacks occurred as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke arrived at the governor's house in Peshawar. Holbrooke was on the third day of a visit to Pakistan to help President Barack Obama chart a new strategy to beat the insurgencies raging in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke is expected in Kabul later this week.
Afghan officials have blamed Pakistani militant groups as well as elements of Pakistan's intelligence agency for some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul, including the bombing of the Indian embassy and the attack on the Serena hotel. Pakistani officials flatly deny the allegations.