The Taliban launched planned attacks across Afghanistan Sunday, targeting NATO bases and foreign embassies in Kabul and at least three eastern provinces.
Afghanistan's vice president, Karim Khalili, was also the subject of a failed assassination attempt that resulted in the arrests of four Haqqani terror network insurgents, said Lutfullah Mashal, a a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, Reuters reports.
Suicide bombers and insurgents wielding heavy weapons and rocket-propelled grenades executed the near-simultaneous attacks in what the Taliban called an opening salvo ahead of the spring fighting season, when warmer weather typically brings increased attacks. One police officer and 17 militants died in the attacks.
The assault, the most widespread in the Afghan capital since September, came as the U.S.-led international force is speeding up the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans in preparation for an end to NATO's combat mission in 2014. The scale and scope of the violence underscored the challenge that Afghan security forces have in protecting even the country's centers of power.
The Taliban claimed that Afghan and foreign troops suffered heavy casualties, but reports from Afghan authorities said only militants were killed.
The Ministry of Interior reported that 17 insurgent fighters died in the attacks in Kabul, Paktia, Nangarhar and Logar provinces. One police officer was killed and 17 police were wounded — 11 in Kabul and three each in Logar and Paktia provinces, the ministry said. Fourteen civilians also were injured in the attacks.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the attacks were a kind of "message" to the Afghan and foreign forces, warning them the insurgents remain strong and resilient.
He said the assaults were the Taliban's response to recent statements by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and NATO spokesman Carsten Jacobson saying the insurgents were weak and that there was no indication they were planning a spring offensive.
"Our mujahedeen fighters are fighting with the Afghan forces in all four provinces," Mujahid told The Associated Press by phone as loud explosions rocked Kabul. "It was well-coordinated and planned for almost two months. It took two months to transfer the weapons and explosives and set up fighters in the specific areas that we planned to attack."
The attack in Kabul began Sunday afternoon with more than a dozen explosions in the central neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, are located.
Gunfire erupted soon after the blasts, forcing people caught in the street to scramble for cover.
Militants fired in several directions from a building under construction near an intersection of roads that lead to the presidential palace, various ministry buildings and several Western embassies.
"I saw two Land Cruisers pull up and two militants jumped from the car," said Mohammad Zakar, a 27-year-old mechanic who has a shop near the building commandeered by the militants. "They opened fire on an intelligence service guard ... They also fired on ... an Afghan policeman and then they jumped into the building. All the shops closed. I ran away."
Heavy gunfire crackled through the streets for hours as smoke rose over the skyline and sirens wailed. A loudspeaker at the U.S. Embassy could be heard barking: "Duck and cover. Move away from the windows."
Residents reported a blast near parliament as militants opened fire from the building under construction.
Mohammad Nahim Lalai Hamidzai, a lawmaker from Kandahar, said he climbed the tower of the parliament building and fired on the insurgents.
"I shot up to 400 or 500 bullets from my Kalashnikov at the attackers," Hamidzai said. "They fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the parliament. The fight was around the parliament, the Russian Embassy and Vice President (Mohammed Karim) Khalili's house."
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said insurgents took up positions mostly in unoccupied buildings outside of the heavily secured quarter that is home to military and diplomatic installations. He said the U.S., German and British embassies and some coalition and Afghan government buildings took direct and indirect fire.
Militants also attacked a NATO site on the outskirts of Kabul, where a joint Greek-Turkish base came under heavy fire and forces responded with heavy-caliber machine guns. A police officer said a suicide bomber inside a building near the base was shooting toward the Kabul Military Training Center.
At least six rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the base from an apartment building 250 yards (meters) away, according to an AP reporter at the scene. Greek troops responded with small arms, heavy machine guns and grenades, and two attack helicopters supported Afghan troops who tried to storm the buildings.
A French convoy moving on the road initially took fire along with another NATO base near the Greek-Turkish installation. Greek troops fired hundreds of rounds to assist, as explosions rocked the area and gunfire continued into the late afternoon.
Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said four militants were killed in that attack and one was arrested by Afghan National Army.
In an e-mailed statement, the Taliban spokesman said the attacks in Kabul targeted NATO headquarters, the British and German embassies, the Afghan parliament building, two hotels and sites along Darulaman Road, where the parliament is located.
"In all these attacks, tens of mujahedeen fighters equipped with light and heavy weapons, suicide vests, RPGs, rockets, heavy machine guns and hand grenades are attacking their targets," Mujahid said.
"We are strong and we can attack anywhere we want," he said, calling the attacks an opening salvo ahead of the insurgency's spring offensive.
U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the coalition was standing by to support the Afghan forces, if needed. "I consider it a testament to their skill and professionalism — of how far they've come — that they haven't yet asked for that support," Allen said in a statement.
However, photos taken by AP photographers showed some NATO troops participating in the response to the attacks.
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, praised the Afghan forces' response and said the attacks demonstrated why U.S. troops were still needed in the country.
Speaking in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said there was some damage to the grounds of the German Embassy, but no staff were injured. He stressed the attacks would not prompt any change in policy.
At roughly the same time as the Kabul attacks, Taliban fighters launched assaults on Afghan and NATO installations in the capitals of Nangarhar, Logar and Paktia provinces.
In Nangarhar, four militants — some wearing burqas to disguise themselves as women — entered a coalition base at about 2 p.m. The base, near the provincial capital of Jalalabad, is home to a so-called Provincial Reconstruction Team, a joint civilian and military group that works on development and governance issues. The ministry said Afghan security forces gunned down all four of the militants.
"There were lots of blasts," said Abdul Qahar Safi, a resident of Jalalabad. "I came to take my children from the school."
At the same time, four other attackers traveling in a vehicle loaded with explosives were seen heading for an airport near Jalalabad.
"Afghan security forces were chasing a suspicious four-wheel-drive vehicle en route to the airport," said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for Nangarhar province. "Before they reached the airport, the vehicle exploded."
Three insurgents were killed in the blast. Police arrested a fourth fighter, who was injured, the ministry said. In the wreckage, police found two rocket-propelled grenades, one heavy machine gun, three AK-47s, nine hand grenades and a pistol.
In Logar province, south of Kabul, five militants occupied a building under construction and started firing in several directions, the ministry said. Three police were wounded when the insurgents, who were all shot and killed, threw hand grenades on policemen responding to the scene. Four civilians also were wounded in the attack.
Farther south in Paktia province, a group of armed insurgents — some wearing women's clothes — entered a building near a police training center in Gardez. The ministry said the militants started firing in different directions. Five civilians and three policemen were wounded. Three attackers were killed.
The coordinated assaults showed a sophistication that is reminiscent of the last sustained attack in Kabul in September 2011.
In that strike, six fighters with heavy weapons took over an unfinished high-rise and fired on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters. They then held out against a 20-hour barrage by hundreds of Afghan and foreign forces. By the time the fighting ended, insurgents had killed 16 Afghans — five police officers and 11 civilians.
That attack was blamed on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based group allied with the Taliban.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar expressed concern over Sunday's attacks and said Pakistan condemns terrorism in all forms and has consistently encouraged dialogue to resolve issues in Afghanistan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.