(For more on Afghanistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK])
* Biggest attack on Kabul in nearly a year
* Blaze towers over city, gunfire, explosions heard
* Fighters holed up in shopping centre
(Adds details, background)
By Hamid Shalizi and Sue Pleming
KABUL, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Taliban gunmen launched a brazen assault on targets in the centre of Kabul on Monday, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at several locations and heavily armed militants fighting a pitched battle in a shopping centre.
The insurgents failed in an apparent attempt to seize government buildings, but demonstrated their ability to cause mayhem at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to rally support for an expanded military mission to fight them.
It was the worst attack on the city in nearly a year. Gunfire and loud explosions shook the city and a huge column of smoke towered over its centre, pouring out of the shopping centre where gunmen battled security forces for hours.
After more than four hours of gunbattles, President Hamid Karzai said in a statement that "the security situation is under control and order has once again been restored".
The Taliban said 20 of their fighters were involved in the attacks, which they said targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the centre of town.
When the attacks began outside Karzai's sprawling palace compound, he was inside swearing in new members of his cabinet.
"As we were conducting the ceremony of swearing in, a terrorist attack in a part of Kabul close to the presidential palace is going on. This is just one of the dangers," Karzai told ministers. "The danger that could harm Afghanistan is sowing national discord among Afghans."
U.S. envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, who had left Kabul hours earlier for New Delhi, said: "The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack nor will they succeed, but we can expect this sort of a thing on a regular basis. That is who the Taliban are."
The attacks were a slap in the face for an initiative to lure Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, which Karzai plans to announce at an international conference in London this month.
The initiative is a key part of Obama's new strategy, which will also see 30,000 extra troops sent to turn the tide against a mounting insurgency.
A Reuters correspondent at the scene of the blazing shopping centre siege saw the body of a shopkeeper carried out. People wept over the body as gunshots could be heard ringing out.
Mohammad Shah, who had escaped the building where he keeps a shop, said the gunmen had stormed in after an explosion at the gate to the nearby presidential palace. Security guards evacuated civilians while the gunmen rushed to the higher floors.
Afghan forces recaptured the shopping centre after noon, killing five fighters there, a security source said. A Reuters reporter at the scene could still hear gunfire, and the head of the Kabul police criminal investigations department said battles were still underway behind the justice ministry building.
While the siege was on, a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside another shopping centre nearby killing several police and security officials. A rocket later struck near a cinema hundreds of metres away.
Three suicide bombers loaded with grenades blew themselves up in different places: one near the education ministry, a second in a crowded square near the central bank and a third outside the shopping centre, a senior government official said.
Initial reports of casualties were only partial. NATO forces said at least two armed insurgents were killed. A security source said two guards were shot dead by the bombers as they stormed the Grand Shopping Centre. Another said three people had died.
Health Ministry spokesman Ahmad Farid Raeed said 18 wounded civilians had been transported to hospitals around the city. He did not have any information on how many people had been killed.
Government buildings and diplomatic offices in Kabul are heavily fortified but a series of attacks in the past year, including one which specificially targetted foreign U.N. employees, have underscored the city's vulnerability even at a time of unprecedented security.
Last Feburary, attackers stormed the justice ministry and other government buildings and Taliban fighters have mounted similar commando raids in other cities.
A Reuters reporter overheard security forces saying on a radio that the car bomber who struck the second shopping centre had driven a military ambulance, suggesting fighters may have posed as members of Afghan security forces or infiltrated them. (Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, Hamid Shalizi, Golnar Motevalli, Sue Pleming, Jonathon Burch and Emma Graham-Harrison; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan) (firstname.lastname@example.org; Kabul newsroom: +93 799 335 285)) (If you have a query or comment about this story, send an e-mail to email@example.com)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet