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Taliban lays siege to Kabul at start of 'spring offensive'

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Cities and towns across Afghanistan came under sustained attack and parts of the capital were under siege yesterday in a co-ordinated offensive by insurgents.

Multiple explosions and heavy machine-gun fire echoed through Kabul as bombers and gunmen targeted areas where the parliament, foreign embassies and NATO's headquarters are based.

The raids, which resulted in President Hamid Karzai being forced to go into "lockdown", were the latest and most spectacular outbreak of violence which has continued for weeks leaving dozens dead and injured and raised questions about the West's exit strategy from the war.

While firefights continued in Kabul following the first blasts in the early afternoon, there were suicide strikes at a US military base in Jalalabad as well as Gardez in the east and at Logar province near the capital, with militants attempting to storm the offices of the army, police and the intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security.

The British embassy in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul was one of those targeted, with two rockets hitting a guard tower, and a rocket-propelled grenade smacking into a house used by diplomats. A group of foreign analysts working for the UK-based company Adam Smith International were trapped inside a Ministry of Commerce building which had partially collapsed.

By late afternoon, the Afghan government claimed that 14 insurgents had been killed, while 14 police officers and nine civilians were injured.

Involved

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, with spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, saying in a text message to the media that it was the start of the spring offensive: "We sent suicide bombers to Kabul and they are now taking over parliament, the US embassy and all diplomatic buildings."

But last night, Afghan and Western officials were saying that there were indications that it was the handiwork of the Haqqani network, which carried out the last major assault on diplomatic missions in Kabul in September, and which is believed to have ties to the Pakistani military and secret police.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said: "It's early, but the initial findings show the Haqqanis were involved." A senior American military source said "the [telephone] intercepts make interesting listening".

The attacks in Afghanistan came a day after the Taliban freed 400 prisoners in Pakistan's North Waziristan area, including one man, Adnan Rashid, jailed for the attempted assassination of the country's former president Pervez Musharraf.

A police chief in the area insisted that such an operation could have been mounted only with official collusion.

In another attack in Kabul in February, an employee of the Interior Ministry shot two American advisers dead, leading to the withdrawal of Western personnel from government departments.

The current round of strife began in February with the burning of Korans and a US serviceman killing 17 villagers in March. The fear of an enemy within for NATO forces rose with a number of lethal incidents of Afghan policemen and soldiers turning their guns on their supposed allies.

Mirwais Yasini, an MP from Nangarhar, said: "This shows the Taliban don't want peace. They don't want to negotiate. They are not serious. They want to continue the killing of innocent people." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent