KABUL - A brazen, 18-hour Taliban attack on the Afghan capital ended early Monday when insurgents who had holed up overnight in two buildings were overcome by heavy gunfire from Afghan-led forces and predawn air assaults from US-led coalition helicopters.
Kabul residents awoke Monday to a second day of loud explosions and the crackle of gunfire. As darkness turned to dawn, Afghan-led forces fired one rocket-propelled grenade after another into a building in the center of the city where insurgents began their attack on Sunday.
Fighting there and at the Afghan Parliament building on the southwest side of the city ended just before 8 a.m.
Authorities said one police officer and at least 17 militants were killed in the multipronged attacks in Kabul and three eastern cities. The violence showed the Taliban and their allies are far from beaten and underscored the security challenge facing government forces as US and NATO forces draw down. The majority of international combat troops are to leave by the end of 2014.
The Taliban began their near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings, and NATO bases at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, saying it was their response to NATO officials’ recent claims that the insurgency was weak.
The US, German, and British embassies and some coalition and Afghan government buildings took direct and indirect fire, according to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the US-led coalition.
Local residents near the Parliament said rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire rocked their neighborhood through the night and into the morning.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said militants took up position in a building under construction near Parliament. Some lawmakers grabbed weapons and started fighting when militants fired on the Parliament on Sunday.
Reporters witnessed the Monday-morning assault on a building under construction near the presidential palace, western embassies, and Afghan ministries.
Shortly before 3 a.m., coalition helicopters began flying over the building. At 4:23 a.m. a religious cleric began calling Muslim worshippers to prayer over a loudspeaker in the area. During the next 15 minutes, troops launched five rocket-propelled grenades into the building. More followed.
Red and white flashes could be seen inside the various floors of the multistory building. By about 6:30 a.m., the blasts and shooting had stopped.
An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said an operation to clear the building was nearly completed. The official said one insurgent was still defending the building, but that at least four other militants had been killed.
The first explosions on Sunday rocked the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Soon gunshots and rocket-propelled grenade fire were ringing out across the city. Smoke rose over the skyline as sirens wailed. A loudspeaker at the US Embassy could be heard barking: “Duck and cover. Move away from the windows.’’
It was the most widespread attack in the Afghan capital since an assault on the US Embassy and NATO headquarters last September blamed on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group allied with the Taliban. Explosions and the crackle of gunfire could be heard throughout the night.
The sophistication and firepower of the latest strikes, as well as the high-profile government and foreign targets, bore the hallmarks of the attack last fall and others carried out by Haqqani insurgents.
As in the earlier attack, armed insurgents took over half-built buildings Sunday and used them to fire down on nearby embassies and bases. In the streets of Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including the US Embassy, are located, residents scrambled for cover as gunfire rained down from all directions.
“I saw two Land Cruisers pull up and two militants jumped from the car,’’ said Mohammad Zakar, a 27-year-old mechanic who has a shop near the building commandeered by the militants.
The eastern cities of Jalalabad, Gardez, and Pul-e-Alam also came under attack, with suicide bombers trying to storm a NATO base, an airport, and police installations.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said dozens of suicide attackers and gunmen were involved in attacks that had been planned for two months to show the insurgency’s power after NATO commanders called the Taliban weak and said there was no indication they were planning a spring offensive.