KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgents took over a high-rise building on Sunday and began firing rocket propelled grenades and assault weapons at government buildings and towards the U.S. Embassy.
The attack was part of coordinated suicide assaults elsewhere in Afghanistan and appeared to herald the beginning of the Taliban's spring offensive.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Kabul what appeared to be a strike mirroring an attack on the heavily fortified American mission in September.
Two suicide bombers blew their explosives-laden vehicle close to the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team compound in the eastern city of Jalalabad., said Ali Zia Abdulzai, the Nangahar province governor's spokesman. A third suicide bomber was arrested, he said.
Explosions and gunfire echoed across Kabul, emptying streets of traffic and shaking windows as Afghan security forces raced to the scene and began battling the insurgents.
It was the first major insurgent attack in Kabul since December, when a suicide bomber killed 84 Shiite Muslims celebrating a religious festival.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman reached by cellphone, told McClatchy that in addition to Kabul and Jalalabad, insurgents also struck targets in the provinces of Logar, and Paktia.
"These attacks are coordinated and the targets are the U.S. Embassy, the U.K. Embassy, the Parliament" and the headquarters of the U.S.-led NATO force, he said of the strikes in Kabul.
Fazel Rabi, an official in Parliament, confirmed that insurgents tried to storm the building around 1:15 pm, firing automatic weapons and RPGs from the main road. Police guards fired back, preventing the attackers from penetrating the building, he said.
Rabi, reached by cellphone inside the building, said he saw at least one police guard wounded.
"I was in my office when the attack began. I heard RPG explosions and light weapons fire," he said, adding that most of the staff were able to escape from the building.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led military coalition, issued a statement saying "the fighting goes on this evening, and ISAF is standing by to support our Afghan partners when and if they need it. I consider it a testament to their skill and professionalism — of how far they've come — that they haven't yet asked for that support."
In the eastern Kabul neighborhood of Paktiakot, four insurgents wearing explosive vests stormed into a four-floor private house and opened fire on NATO bases on either side of a major road, said a senior police official at the scene.
The attackers left a car packed with explosives at the entrance to the house to prevent an assault by Afghan security forces, who engaged the insurgents in a gunbattle, he said by cellphone. He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Independent Tolo TV said the insurgents entered the multi-story Kabul Star Hotel in the diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan, and began raining gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades on government buildings.
Police officers deployed near the area said the occupied building might have been a semi-constructed high-rise behind the hotel.
The attack began shortly after 1 p.m. with intermittent gunfire, followed by a series of powerful explosions.
Witnesses, including a McClatchy reporter, saw several rocket propelled grenades fired at the U.S. mission.
A siren blared inside the walled compound and loud speakers could be heard repeatedly urging staff to take cover.
In a statement not long after the attack began, U.S. Embassy spokesperson Gavin Sundwall, said all personnel are accounted for and safe. “The U.S. Embassy is currently in lockdown, following our standard operating procedures after hearing explosions and gunfire in the area.”
The whoosh of rocket-propelled grenades followed by sharp blasts and the rattle of automatic weapons continued to resound more than an hour after the fighting erupted.
Afghan soldiers and police, nervously fingering guns and rocket propelled grenades, shut down streets around the downtown.
The attack is similar to a September incident in which insurgents took over an unfinished high-rise close to the U.S. Embassy and held it for about 24 hours before they were killed by Afghan security forces.