Suicide bombers have struck across Afghanistan in co-ordinated attacks, with explosions and gunfire rocking the diplomatic area of Kabul as Taliban fighters took over buildings and tried to enter parliament.
A joint operation by Afghan and international forces to displace the attackers from the buildings they had occupied continued into Monday morning, with Kabul residents reporting that the sound of machine guns and heavy weapons could be heard through the night.
On Monday morning, Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reported from Kabul that police had been seen to be removing bodies from the site of an assault on Taliban attackers who had been holed up in a construction site next to the Kabul Starr hotel.
Fighting was ongoing near the parliament, where one gunman remained inside a building opposite the parliament and was shooting at security forces, Hashmatullah Stanikzai, a police spokesman, said.
Outside the capital on Sunday, attackers also targeted government buildings in Logar province, the airport in Jalalabad, and a police facility in the town of Gardez in Paktia province.
A Taliban spokesman said the violence marked the start of their annual spring offensive which heralds the fighting season, adding that “a lot of suicide bombers” were involved.
The attacks are among the most serious on the capital since US-backed Afghan forces removed the group from power in 2001.
A spokesman for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said there were as yet no reports of casualties in the attacks in Kabul, and the US embassy said in a statement all its staff were accounted for and safe.
The Taliban said the main targets were the German and British embassies, and the headquarters of Afghanistan’s NATO-led force, all in Kabul.
Several Afghan members of parliament joined security forces repelling attackers from a roof near the parliament.
Afghan police also arrested 15 would-be suicide bombers in northern Afghanistan who were trying to launch attacks in Kunduz province. There were reports of the arrest of suicide bombers in other areas.
Al Jazeera’s Smith said the damage and death toll from Sunday’s violence was still being determined.
“This is the biggest attack there has been in Kabul since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. We have been told that 19 suicide bombers have blown themselves up or been killed and another 17 have been arrested,” Smith said.
The co-ordinated attacks are bound to intensify concern in the run-up to the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The assault appeared to repeat the tactics of an attack in Kabul last September when fighters entered construction sites in several places to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said it had been easy to bring fighters into the capital, and that they had had inside help to move heavy weapons into place.
Afghan security forces, who are responsible for the safety of the capital, were scrambling to reinforce areas around the so-called “Green Zone” diplomatic section of the city centre.
Attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade that landed just outside the front gate of a house used by British diplomats in the city centre and smoke billowed from the area after the blast, a witness told the Reuters news agency.
Two rockets hit a British embassy guard tower near the Reuters office in the city, with embassy sources saying staff were in a lock-down.
Fighting raged late into the night at some NATO facilities, ISAF said via Twitter.
A US defence official who declined to be identified said the attackers had mostly used small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and “perhaps even suicide bombers”.
Three rockets hit a supermarket that is popular with foreigners near the German embassy, witnesses said.
Smoke rose from the vicinity of the embassy while women scurried for cover as gunfire crackled.
As the shooting went on, US army convoys could be seen coming to the area accompanied by Afghan police in flak jackets.
Staff at the embassies were not available for comment.
Attackers also fired rockets at the parliament building in the west of Kabul, and at the Russian embassy,a spokesman for the parliament said.
Most MPs had left the building before it came under attack, said a politician. However, one of several who fought back from a roof, Naeem Hameedzai, told Reuters: “I’m the representative of my people and I have to defend them.”
Afghan media said Taliban fighters had stormed the Kabul Star hotel complex near the presidential palace and the Iranian embassy.
The windows of the hotel were blown out and smoke billowed from the building.
In the eastern province of Paktia, NATO helicopter gunships attacked Taliban fighters holed up in a building next to a construction site while in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
A Reuters witness said that Taliban attacked a foreign force base near a school in the city.
One Taliban fighter was killed, another blew himself up and a third was captured. A blast also went off near the airport
in Jalalabad, a witness said.