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Afghan capital on high alert after Taliban attacks

The Afghan capital was on high alert Tuesday a day after Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers struck the heart of Kabul, launching a wave of attacks and triggering battles with security forces that left five people dead and sent terrified residents fleeing.

world Updated: Jan 19, 2010 09:13 IST

The Afghan capital was on high alert Tuesday a day after Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers struck the heart of Kabul, launching a wave of attacks and triggering battles with security forces that left five people dead and sent terrified residents fleeing.

The authorities are likely to face questions about how the militants were able to penetrate the highly-fortified centre of the city, although the NATO chief praised local security forces for their defence of the capital.

"Our security measures are always strict, we are always on high alert, and we will be tomorrow, and after," interior ministry spokesman Zamary Bashari said late Monday.

Heavily-armed militants targeted government buildings near the presidential palace, two shopping centres, a cinema and Kabul's only five-star hotel in a coordinated blitz of attacks launched at rush-hour on Monday.

Several suicide bombers blew themselves up at key sites, setting off blazing fires that sent plumes of black smoke into the sky, as Afghan security forces battled militants on the otherwise deserted streets.

Several children were also briefly taken hostage, a security official said, in the most dramatic strike on Kabul since the Taliban laid siege to government buildings in February 2009, killing at least 26 people.

The capital has avoided many of the bloodiest attacks waged by the Islamist militants since they launched an insurgency against the government and foreign troops after the toppling of the Taliban regime in the 2001 US-led invasion.

One child was killed, along with four members of the security forces, and more than 70 people were wounded, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said after President Hamid Karzai declared the situation "under control."

Seven militants were also killed, either by blowing themselves up or by being shot dead by the security forces.

"They were killed, taking the shame of defeat with them to the grave," said Atmar.

The Taliban strike coincided with the swearing-in of a number of Karzai's new cabinet ministers at the presidential palace, part of the painfully slow process of forming a government since the fraud-tainted election last year.

"The enemies of the Afghan people conducted a series of attacks today, causing fear and terror among the population," Karzai said.

The government had said on Monday that Karzai was to announce a new plan aimed at forging peace with the Taliban, although the militants have repeatedly rebuffed efforts at negotiation.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen commended the role of the Afghan security forces in defending the city and restoring order.

The attackers "made it clear, in their choice of targets, that their aim is to reverse the progress that Afghans are making in building better lives and a better future," he said.

The Taliban, waging an increasingly deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government and the NATO-led foreign troops, claimed responsibility, saying it had sent in a squad of 20 suicide bombers.

Witnesses described terrifying scenes in the capital.

"I saw four people wrapped up in blankets coming and the guard went forward and asked them 'what are you doing'," said local grocer Ismail, who was in his shop in one of the malls when militants stormed in.

"One of them opened his blanket and showed the guard a suicide vest packed with explosives and said to him, 'get out of my way or you'll die'."

The head of Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security, Amrullah Saleh, said militants took two children hostage but later freed them after negotiations.

The United States condemned the attacks as a "ruthless" act by the Taliban, whose rebellion to topple the government and oust foreign troops has been gaining strength in recent months.

The last major attack on the capital was on December 15, when a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle outside the homes of former senior government officials, killing eight people and wounding more than 40.