KABUL (Reuters) - Heavy explosions, rockets and gunfire rattled Kabul on Sunday as Afghanistan's Taliban launched a "spring offensive" with multiple attacks targeting Western embassies, the NATO force's headquarters and the parliament building.
The assault, one of the most serious on the capital since U.S.-backed Afghan forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001, highlighted the ability of militants to strike the heavily guarded diplomatic zone even after more than 10 years of war.
It was also another election-year setback in Afghanistan for U.S. President Barack Obama, who wants to present the long campaign against the Taliban as a success before the departure of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
"These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
He said the onslaught was revenge for a series of incidents involving American troops in Afghanistan - including the burning of Korans at a NATO base and the massacre of 17 civilians by a U.S. soldier - and vowed that there would be more such attacks.
Fighting was still raging after nightfall, more than nine hours after the Taliban first struck following midday prayers.
The Taliban said the main targets were the German and British embassies and the headquarters of the NATO-led force. Several Afghan members of parliament joined security forces repelling attackers from a roof near the parliament.
Large explosions shook the diplomatic sector of Kabul. Billows of black smoke rose from embassies while rocket-propelled grenades whizzed overhead.
Heavy gunfire could be heard from many directions as Afghan security forces tried to repel Taliban fighters.
Four insurgents were also detained in Kabul over a near-simultaneous assassination attempt on Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili, with Afghanistan's spy agency saying they belonged to the militant Haqqani network, based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
The four were intercepted by security forces before the other attacks got underway, said Afghan intelligence agency spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.
Other insurgent fighters, some dressed in women's head-to-toe covering burqas, launched attacks in three other provinces. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, they attacked a foreign force base near a school and a blast went off near the airport.
The Ministry of Interior said 19 insurgents, including suicide bombers, had died in the attacks across the country and two were captured. Fourteen police officers and nine civilians were wounded.
The attacks in Kabul come a month before a NATO summit at which the United States and its allies are supposed to put finishing touches on plans for transition to Afghan security control, and days before a meeting of defence and foreign ministers in Brussels to prepare for the alliance's summit in Chicago.
They also came just as Western forces prepare to leave as part of a plan to hand over responsibilities to the Afghan forces by 2014.
That may prompt some to draw comparisons with the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. There are major differences in the scale and length of the events and casualties but the assault may still challenge assertions that America is winning.
Afghan security forces apparently failed to learn lessons from a similar operation in Kabul last September, when insurgents entered construction sites to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks.
On Sunday, insurgents entered a multi-storey construction site overlooking the diplomatic triangle and behind a supermarket. There they unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, protected from the view of security forces by green protective netting wrapped around the skeleton of the building.
Hours earlier in neighbouring Pakistan, dozens of Islamist militants had stormed a prison in the dead of night and freed nearly 400 inmates, including one on death row for trying to assassinate former President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan's Taliban movement, which is close to al Qaeda, said it was behind the brazen assault by militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.
Pakistan's Taliban are closely linked with their Afghan counterparts. They move back and forth across the unmarked border in a region Obama has described as "the most dangerous place in the world".
Pakistan's Taliban have said in recent months they would boost cooperation with the Afghan Taliban in their fight against U.S.-led NATO forces.
Both the attacks in Afghanistan and the jail break in Pakistan underscore Pakistan's failure to tackle militancy on both sides of the border eleven years after joining the U.S.-led campaign against Islamist militancy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with American Ambassador Ryan Crocker to discuss what she called "cowardly attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan", and to make sure U.S. personnel were safe.
Crocker said it was unlikely the Afghan Taliban had the capacity to launch Sunday's attacks on its own, and speculated that the Haqqani were behind it.
"My guess, based on previous experience here, is this is a set of Haqqani network operations out of north Waziristan and the Pakistani tribal areas. Frankly I don't think the Taliban is good enough," he told CNN.
The United States accused Pakistan of having links to the Haqqanis last year after an attack on the U.S. embassy and other targets in Kabul that it blamed on the group.
The Haqqani network is one of the most divisive issues between Washington and Islamabad, whose relations were badly damaged last year by the unilateral American raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town.
Washington has repeatedly urged the Pakistani military to go after the Haqqani network, which is believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.
Evidence that the Haqqanis were behind the latest attacks in Afghanistan could hamper efforts to patch up U.S.-Pakistan ties between the strategic allies.
The Taliban said in a statement that "tens of fighters", armed with heavy and light weapons, and some wearing suicide-bomb vests, had carried out the multi-pronged assault.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said it had been easy to bring fighters into the capital, and they had had inside help to move heavy weapons into place. He did not elaborate.
Afghan security forces, who are responsible for the safety of the capital, scrambled to reinforce areas around the so-called green diplomatic quarter.
Attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade that landed just outside the front gate of a house used by British diplomats, and two rockets landed near a British Embassy guard tower near the Reuters office.
There was fighting at some facilities of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and near the U.S., Russian and German embassies.
A statement from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said EU diplomatic personnel were safe.
Attackers also fired rockets at the parliament building in an attack that went well into the night. Most lawmakers had left the building before it came under attack. However, one of several who fought back from a roof, Naeem Hameedzai, told Reuters: "I'm the representative of my people and I have to defend them."
Afghan media said fighters stormed the Star Hotel complex near the presidential palace and Iranian embassy. The hotel's windows were blown out and smoke billowed from the building.
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, Rob Taylor, Reuters Television and Pictures in Kabul , and Missy Ryan in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy, Rob Taylor and John Chalmers; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo