Smoke billows from the scene of a gunfight between Taliban militants and… (S. Sabawoon / European Pressphoto…)
KABUL, Afghanistan-- In a brazen attack on the seat of Afghan government power, gunman struck near the palace in Kabul early Tuesday, reportedly exchanging fire with bodyguards of President Hamid Karzai.
More than a dozen heavy explosions rocked the Shash Darak neighborhood of the capital, near the presidential palace, embassies and the headquarters of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force about 6:30 a.m.
Underlining the security challenges faced by the administration, the attack took place as journalists were attending a news conference hosted by Karzai at the palace. In text messages to reporters, the Taliban claimed responsibility, saying several attackers targeted the presidential palace, the Ministry of Defense and a nearby hotel.
[Updated 10:25 p.m. PDT, June 24: Gen. Mohammed Daud Amin, Kabul’s deputy chief of police, said downtown Kabul had been secured after an unknown number of suicide bombers were killed or detonated themselves, with no reported casualties among civilians or security forces.
The attackers, dressed in military uniforms, arrived in two vehicles and tried to pass the checkpoint leading to the coalition headquarters and presidential palace using fake identification cards, Amin said. After security forces grew suspicious, Amin said, the attackers jumped out of their vehicles and opened fire.
In a message sent to journalists, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the main target was the Ariana Hotel, where an important CIA station is located, as well as the nearby presidential palace and Afghan Defense Ministry.
The heavy explosions heard across the city were caused by hand grenades and men detonating their suicide vests, Amin said.
The area was littered with the body parts of the suicide bombers, Amin added. Fighting continued for more than an hour before the area was secured.]
The attack comes a few days after the government objected to a Taliban office in Qatar, claiming that its flag and nameplate suggested the militant group represented the country.
The Taliban has openly said it will maintain its strikes against the government and international forces even as it entertains talks aimed at a political settlement in advance of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Four Americans were killed in a Taliban rocket attack on Bagram air base in eastern Afghanistan last week, just as President Obama was announcing negotiations with the insurgent group in an "important first step" toward reconciliation.
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Special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Magnier reported from New Delhi.