KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters stormed two government ministries and the prisons administration center Wednesday in Kabul in simultaneous assaults that killed at least 20 people, wounded more than 50 and underscored the ease with which the insurgents are able to penetrate the heavily guarded Afghan capital.
All eight assailants also died in the audacious midmorning attacks, two by blowing themselves up at the prisons office and the rest in gun battles with the police inside and outside the Ministries of Justice and Education, Afghan officials said.
For more than two hours, gunmen roamed the halls of the Justice Ministry, shooting at staff members inside the building and at police outside, until security forces killed them, officials said.
The assaults came a day before Richard Holbrooke, the new special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was expected to make his first visit to Kabul to assess the worsening violence in the war-torn country.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks, telling privately owned Ariana Television in a telephone call that they were in response to the mistreatment of captured insurgents by the government.
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar told a news conference that 20 people were killed and 57 wounded.
The assaults began at 10 a.m. and sent bystanders outside the two ministries, in the traffic-choked heart of the city near the presidential palace, scurrying for cover.
Amanuddin Jamal, who was walking outside the Justice Ministry, said a gunman began firing an assault rifle at guards at the building's entrance as four other assailants blasted their way inside.
"There was a person who had a shawl wrapped around him. He began shooting from a Kalashnikov and his companions entered the Justice Ministry," Jamal said.
Mohammad Daoud Amin, the district police chief, said police officers returned fire, killing the attacker, while the four gunmen stalked the halls inside shooting ministry staff.
Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danesh was in his office at the time, but was escorted out of the building safely, Amin said.
Security forces exchanged fire in the building for more than two hours with the gunmen, who on several occasions loosed fusillades of bullets from windows at police officers deployed outside.
Several employees were seen fleeing the building, their faces creased in terror.
Meanwhile, a man dressed in the uniform of the National Security Directorate, the country's top intelligence agency, stepped out of a car and approached the gate of the Education Ministry, which is about 500 yards from the Justice Ministry on the opposite side of Zarnigar Park.
Several witnesses said the man opened fire with an assault rifle at a wooden guard booth on the wall that surrounds the building, and died when police shot back.
"He emptied his magazine and was putting another into his weapon," said Najibullah Haideri, a ministry guard. "My commander ordered him to lay down his gun, but he continued shooting and my commander shot him."
The third assault occurred at the department of prisons in a northern section of the city, said Gen. Mohammad Arif, a senior official at the facility.
He said that two "suicide attackers" approached the entrance from different directions.
"One of them faced resistance by the guard at the gate and he blew himself up. The second one got into the building and blew himself up. In total, seven people were killed," Arif said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2009