A string of rockets slammed into Kabul at daybreak on Tuesday in the first major attack on the relatively calm Afghan capital in the run-up to this month's presidential election, police and residents said.
A suicide bomber also killed five people and wounded 18 in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, and a provincial governor escaped injury in an attack on his convoy.
Afghan officials said at least eight rockets hit the Afghan capital, one damaging a senior Interior Ministry official's house near the U.S. Embassy.
A Taliban spokesman claimed militants fired nine rockets at the international airport and two at an Afghan military headquarters, in a neighborhood of embassies and government buildings, to show that the government cannot ensure security in the capital. "We are in control," Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press by telephone, warning the Taliban could fire more rockets at the capital before the elections.
President Hamid Karzai, who was once highly popular inside and outside Afghanistan, has lost luster in recent years because of endemic government corruption, a huge narcotics industry and the unyielding violence.
The president has done minimal campaigning ahead of the Aug. 20 vote but traveled on Tuesday to the eastern city of Gardez, the scene of an assault by Taliban militants that killed six Afghan police and intelligence officers late last month.
July was also the deadliest month for international forces since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and nine NATO troops have been killed so far this month.
NATO's governing body approved a plan Tuesday to reorganize the alliance's command structure in Afghanistan by setting up a new headquarters to handle the day-to-day running of the war. The move is aimed at easing the pressure on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, by removing the burden of the day-to-day operation of the war. It is similar to the model used in Iraq, where overall command of the multinational forces was under a four-star American general, while a three-star general ran daily operations.
Some 101,000 NATO and U.S. forces are deployed to secure the country. This includes a record 62,000 U.S. troops, more than double the number a year ago.
Karzai's only mention of the American or NATO military efforts was a call for Western forces to release hundreds of Afghans who have been detained by Western forces on suspicion of involvement with the Taliban and held without charge, often for months or years. "The Afghan people are happy because you have paved roads, built schools, and the salaries of the government are paid by the international community and United States, but we want all our prisoners to be released," he told a crowd gathered in front of a mosque.
"My first wish and aim is to bring peace and security all over the country," he said.
A handful of large-scale attacks have targeted government ministries and an international hotel in Kabul but the capital has been mostly spared the bombings, suicide attacks and gunbattles common across much of Afghanistan.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said a child and a man had been lightly wounded when they were hit by flying glass in residential areas next to the airport, where most of the rockets landed. One landed near the U.S. Embassy in a heavily guarded section filled with diplomats and international organizations, and another hit in a mostly Afghan residential neighborhood further west, police said.
Police said the rockets came from Deh Sabz, an area about five miles (eight kilometers) northeast of Kabul. The Deh Sabz district police chief, Mohammad Haydar Tayeb, said police found a ninth, unexploded rocket there and suspect the militants fled after activating a crude device that uses slowly dripping water as a timer to activate a charge from a car battery to the portable rocket launchers.
The early hour of the attack meant the normally busy street where the rockets landed were almost empty, avoiding more civilian casualties.
Tayeb said several suspects were arrested and handed over to intelligence services.
The suicide bomber who also struck Tuesday detonated an explosive vest in Zabul province next to a vehicle of agents of the country's National Directorate of Security, killing one agent and four civilians. Eighteen people were also wounded, including three children, according to deputy provincial police chief Ghulam Jailani Khan.
A bomb hidden in an irrigation culvert detonated under the convoy of the governor of Wardak province as he traveled to his office from Kabul but no one was hurt, said Mohammad Yahya, a spokesman for the chief of provincial police.