Taliban attackers armed with explosives and guns have staged a raid on the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, resulting in the deaths of at least three Afghan guards, officials and eyewitnesses say.
At least four attackers were also killed, officials said.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack targeting the presidential palace and the nearby United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) office in one of the most secure areas of central Kabul on Tuesday morning.
A series of explosions was followed by about 90 minutes of small arms fire, as attackers and police engaged in a gun battle, police said. The attack began soon after 6:30am local time (02:00 GMT) when at least one man opened fire with an automatic rifle at a gate to the palace.
An initial round of firing was followed by an explosion, as the attackers attempted to gain access to the area. About 20 journalists took cover behind a religious shrine, pulling a schoolboy off the street who had been caught in the open on his way to school.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a text message the fighters had "brought death to the enemy" with a suicide attack.
All the fighters involved in the attack were dead, the Kabul police chief said following the battle. Rafi Ferdous, a government spokesman, confirmed that three guards had been killed and another wounded in the attack.
Police Chief Mohammad Ayoub Salangi told reporters at the scene that all three or four fighters jumped out of their explosives-laden car before detonating it, and were killed.
"A Land Cruiser car using a fake ID came to the gate. While the guards were asking them to show [indentification], two to three people came out from the car and the car exploded, The guards killed all the attackers," he said.
The defence ministry and the Ariana Hotel, the CIA's Afghan station, were also targeted. A thick plume of smoke was seen rising from Ariana Hotel at the height of the exchanges, but it was unclear what damage the other targets sustained.
Afghan forces and US soldiers returned fire and explosions resounded in the area.
Taliban talks on hold
Al Jazeera producer Qais Azimy, who was at the scene at the time, said the attack occurred as a meeting was about to take place at the presidential palace.
He said the raid mirrored recent previous incidents and appeared to be well-coordinated.
A number of the attackers targeted the west gate, which is near the CIA office, our producer said, adding that black smoke billowed out of the building after the initial raid.
Azimy also said President Hamid Karzai was likely to be in his office at the time as he was due to address the media. Initial reports indicated that Karzai was unhurt.
The president's palace is in a large fortified area of downtown Kabul that also includes the US Embassy and the headquarters for the NATO-led coalition forces.
The attack came ahead of a planned event where Karzai was expected to speak about his talks with James Dobbins, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the issue of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban through their newly opened office in Qatar.
"Dobbins has said that they are waiting to hear from the Taliban to see whether they are willing to come to the table. We were expecting President Karzai to say in that meeting today that he was going to send an advance fact-finding party to Qatar where the Taliban has its [office] to try and get those talks going," reported Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse from Kabul.
Afghan sources, however, told Al Jazeera that the Taliban representatives in Doha were adamant that they would not speak with the Karzai government.
Meanwhile, in a separate attack in the southern Kandahar province, a roadside bomb killed eight women and one child as they travelled to celebrate a wedding engagement, police and officials said.
The provincial governor's office said that the roadside explosion in Khakriz district was caused by an improvised explosive device (IED).
Ghorzang Afridi, spokesperson for the provincial police, said that the car's driver and two other men had also been wounded in the attack.
"They were members of the same family and were going to mark their son's engagement at the bride's home."
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