, KABUL, Jan 18 – Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked buildings across the heart of Kabul on Monday, killing at least five people including a child and triggering fierce gun battles with security forces.
Fires were blazing after two shopping centres, a cinema and the only five-star hotel in the Afghan capital were targeted by heavily-armed militants, setting off a wave of explosions, witnesses and officials said.
Five people were killed and 38 others wounded, the public health ministry said, in the most spectacular strike on Kabul since Taliban militants laid siege to government buildings in February 2009, killing at least 26 people.
Defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said a child was among the dead, also telling Afghan television that "four terrorists" had been killed – two who blew themselves up and another two shot dead by security forces.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said security had now been restored in the highly-fortified capital after hours of fighting.
The Taliban, waging an increasingly deadly insurgency against the Western-backed government and foreign forces in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they had sent in 20 suicide bombers.
Police and military snipers patrolled rooftops as panicked residents fled and shopkeepers hurriedly locked up, with the fiercest fighting reported in the Pashtunistan Square, near government buildings and the presidential palace.
Some militants were still inside the Ariana Cinema, shooting at security forces who had surrounded the building, while at least two shopping centres were on fire, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.
"There are some threats in the Ariana cinema building and troops have moved in to clear the threat," he said.
Serena Hotel, Kabul\\\’s only five-star hotel, was also ablaze, television footage showed.
A local grocer who gave his name as Ismail said he was in his shop on the ground floor of one of the shopping malls when the militants stormed the building.
"I saw four people wrapped up in patus (blankets) coming and the guard went forward and asked them \\\’what are you doing\\\’," Ismail said.
"One of them opened his patu and showed the guard a suicide vest packed with explosives and said to him \\\’get out of my way or you\\\’ll die\\\’.
"Then they went upstairs and we just ran for our lives," he said.
NATO\\\’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Afghan security forces had secured roads in central Kabul.
A purported Taliban spokesman told AFP said the militia was behind the attacks and had targeted, the presidential palace, the finance, justice and mines ministries, and the central bank.
"Twenty of our suicide bombers have entered the area and fighting is ongoing," the spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He said one militant had detonated a suicide vest at the entrance to the presidential palace complex.
It was not immediately clear where the suicide blasts hit, but local television said two shopping centres were on fire, while an AFP driver said he had seen what appeared to be a car bombing near the foreign ministry.
Washington condemned the attacks as a "desperate" and "ruthless" act by the Taliban, whose fight to topple the government and eject foreign troops from Afghanistan has been gaining strength since their regime was toppled in a US-led invasion in 2001.
"It\\\’s not surprising that the Taliban do this sort of thing," US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke told reporters in New Delhi.
"The people doing this certainly will not survive the attack, nor will they succeed. But we can expect this sort of thing on a regular basis."
The attacks came a day after the government said Karzai was to announce a new plan aimed at forging peace with the Islamist Taliban.
Karzai has long called for peace talks with the Taliban – even offering government posts to its leaders – but the militia has refused dialogue until the withdrawal of international troops on which Kabul relies for security.
The last major attack on the capital was on December 15, when a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle outside the homes of former senior government officials, killing eight people and injuring more than 40.
On October 28, a guesthouse occupied by United Nations employees was overrun by Taliban militants, who murdered six UN workers, while in February 2009 about 26 people were killed in coordinated attacks on government buildings.