Afghan security forces clashed with Taliban fighters in Kandahar for a second day in a row after the Taliban unleashed a major assault on government buildings in the southern city.
Zemeri Bashary, an interior ministry spokesman, said a fire fight broke out on Sunday when security forces began an operation to clear the city's Kandahar Hotel, located next to the intelligence agency headquarters and a police station.
He did not know how many fighters were holed up in the hotel, which had been used to stage
Saturday's daylong attacks against the two buildings.
Troops were being cautious because most of the fighters were believed to be wearing suicide
vests, he said. NATO troops and helicopters could be seen supporting Afghan forces in the clash.
Fighting had stopped overnight after Afghan forces had secured the government buildings which had been attacked, Bashary said, although sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard around the city.
So far, he said a total of 23 attackers had been killed as well as two members of the security forces. Another 40 people were wounded.
Of the dead attackers, eight detonated their suicide vests. Security forces captured four of the attackers, Bashary added.
The size and scope of the attack, which began at noon Saturday, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a yearlong campaign to secure Afghanistan's south and Kandahar in particular.
The city was the birthplace of the Taliban and is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed more than 100 fighters took part and said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city. It was the most ambitious attack since the insurgents declared the start of a spring offensive last month against NATO and Afghan troops.
Bashary said government forces had cleared and secured all of the buildings attacked by the Taliban fighters. They included the governor's office, the intelligence agency and the police station. Other smaller buildings were also attacked.
"Except for the Kandahar hotel all other places have been cleared by the Afghan forces," Bashary told reporters in Kabul.
He added that nearly all the fighters killed so far had escaped late last month from Kandahar city's main Sarposa prison. More than 480 Taliban members escaped through a 300-meter long tunnel that took five months to dig.
The Taliban said on Saturday that a large number of its fighters flooded into Kandahar city with the aim of targeting any building used by the government.
"Our attack was against every place where government officials or security forces are found," Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesperson for the Taliban, told the Associated Press news agency over the telephone.
He said the group's fighters managed to enter at least the governor's compound and claimed that there were deaths.
"A lot of people have been killed," Ahmadi said.
The Kandahar assault is the latest in an ongoing series of attacks by the Taliban on prominent government installations.
A statement from the office of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, on Saturday said the attacks were revenge for the recent killing of al-Qaeda's leader by US forces.
|Afghan police patrol Kandahar after the Taliban's attacks on Saturday [EPA]
"Al-Qaeda and its terrorist members who have suffered a major defeat with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistani territory have tried to hide this defeat by killing civilians in Kandahar and take their revenge on the innocent people of Afghanistan," the statement said.
The Taliban issued a statement on Friday saying that the killing would boost the morale of the group, and threatening that it would show its strength.
"The martyrdom of Sheik Osama bin Laden will give a new impetus to the current jihad against the invaders," the Taliban said.
"The forthcoming time will prove this both for the friends and the foes."
However, in his statement to AP on Saturday, Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, said the Kandahar assault was not a revenge attack for bin Laden's death but a plot that had been in the works for months.
"This operation has been planned for a long time, for the past month or two," he said.
Last week, the Taliban announced the start of its "spring offensive" against both international forces and the Afghan government.
Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, has been the focus of military operations for last year, with US commanders saying they have made gains, but qualifying successes by terming them "fragile" and "reversible".
The Taliban said last week, before the killing of bin Laden, that more large attacks were planned as part of its spring offensive.