Taliban takes fight to heart of Kabul

Taliban suicide squads struck at the heart of Kabul yesterday in a series of attacks which killed at least five people, including a young child.

Nearly 40 others were wounded in the suicide attacks which led to international condemnation.

The series of explosions were followed by more than three hours of gunfights outside several ministries and inside a shopping mall.

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President Hamid Karzai later said security had been restored, although search operations continued amid reports that attackers were hiding.

It was the biggest attack in the capital since October 28 when gunmen stormed a guest house used by UN staff, killing at least 11 people.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the terror attacks by Taliban militants in which seven of the attackers were believed killed.

He said: "It is an indiscriminate attack on public areas of Kabul which shows a deliberate disregard for the lives of ordinary Afghans.

"We and the rest of the international community stand united with the Government of Afghanistan. This incident strengthens our resolve to build a safer, more secure Afghanistan."

A Taliban spokesman said 20 armed militants, including some with suicide vests, had entered the city to target the presidential palace and other government buildings.

Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rattled the city for hours. Debris was strewn on the streets, which were quickly abandoned by crowds that normally fill the area.

Four Taliban were killed, including two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives, and Afghan forces were searching other areas in the city for more attackers.

It unfolded on a day in which confirmed Cabinet members were sworn in by Karzai despite the rejection by parliament of the majority of his choices.

A presidential spokesman said the swearing-in had occurred as scheduled and everybody in the palace was safe.

The first blast was heard shortly before 10am local time in an area where government buildings are concentrated, including the presidential palace, the central bank and the luxury Serana Hotel, which is used by Westerners. A rocket slammed into the street near the bank's gate, but there were conflicting reports on whether the area had been struck by a suicide bomber or grenades.

Police sealed off a large area in the city centre as the clash of fire echoed through the streets.

Fighting raged for more than three hours and one four-storey shopping centre near the Justice Ministry was engulfed in flames after a group of militants entered the building, throwing grenades inside to frighten shoppers.

Two suicide bombers later detonated their explosives and Afghan troops killed two other militants in the mall.

Elsewhere in the capital Afghan troops surrounded an area housing a cinema and opened fire on militants believed hiding inside. The fighting ended after the last suicide attacker inside blew himself up.

The Taliban have become increasingly brazen in challenging Afghan and international forces as the West begins sending 37,000 more troops to join the fight.

The ability of the insurgents to penetrate the heavily secured city – even near the presidential palace and government ministries – was likely to deal a new blow to public confidence in the Afghan government.